Category Archives: Maggie O'Farrell

Book Review – The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I am belatedly getting through my Seasons Readings, with seven down and three to go and I just have to comment on how pleased I have been with the selection so far from everyone’s wonderful recommendations. The latest book from the list was Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I want to say from the beginning through to the end was a joy to read.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is set in the present-day and looks back 60-odd years previous in order to discover why the central character, Euphemia Esme Lennox (or Esme as she prefers to be known) has been in a psychiatric institution for most of her life. Brought up in India as a child and moved to Scotland as a young woman the wilful and unusual Esme is a handful for her parents and attracts attention from those about her, that is until her seemingly bad behaviour results in her being committed into mental care where she learns to make herself ‘vanish’. Flash forward to the present-day and Iris, who has a mixed-up enough life as it is, receives a phone call telling her that she has a relative she never knew existed and that the hospital is closing down. The two women’s lives begin to intertwine.

Events leading up to the present day are revealed through memories, mainly Esme’s and also those of her sister Kitty whose mind has been damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. I would expect to find this a difficult writing style, but I thought it was very effective and surprisingly, not confusing at all. The story flows smoothly and O’Farrell is able to keep back some of the plot twists very well back through this method, gently unravelling the story and giving you little glimpses as the book goes on. I was impressed with the way that the modern environment was contrasted with the scenes of a completely different generation. I enjoyed the way that the family’s life in India was visualised – the sites and sounds were so vivid and unusual:

“There it was. The weeping, the slow weeping of rubber trees leaking their fluid… Esme tilted her head this way and that, still with her eyes tight shut, and listened to the sound of trees crying.”

But in the rigid social norms of early 20th Century Scotland, people had dramatically different expectations of women. It seems to have been a time where you could be locked up in a psychiatric ward on the simple say-so of your parents and left there to rot. This theme reminded me of how shocked I was by this when I read Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White and also the threat of this kind of incarceration which is underlying in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle.

Despite the sad events in the novel there are some wonderful themes of a young woman blossoming and I Esme’s bright individual personality was a pleasure to read. O’Farrell skilfully conjured up melancholy but beautiful images, such as when Iris first meets Esme at the hospital:

“Iris sees the woman turn, first her head, then her neck, then her body. It seems to take an extraordinarily long time and Iris is reminded of an animal uncurling from sleep.”

I was very impressed with this novel. I thought that the writing style was both gentle and poignant and yet still managed to cover some very tough events without being melodramatic. I found it very moving, and I was surprised that I didn’t cry reading this, but thinking back, the reason I didn’t may have been to do with the way that the character of Esme herself was so strong. I think that The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is an excellent piece of writing and was thoroughly absorbed in it from start to finish. Recommended!

Have you read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox or other Maggie O’Farrell novels?