Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Book Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox Maggie O'Farrell

I read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox quite a while ago, and finally decided to review it. I saw the book at my aunt's place when I went visiting. The title intrigued me so; I just had to bring it home with me!


“In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage-clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for more than sixty-one years.

Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face.

Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But she's still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?

A gothic, intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox will haunt you long past its final page.”

This novel is difficult to review without giving away major details of the plot. The story centers on three women: Iris, her grandmother Kitty, and her great aunt Esme. Iris gets an unexpected phone call, informing her that her hitherto unknown great aunt, Esme, will be released from the psychiatric institution she has been locked away for over sixty years. Not knowing what Esme’s condition is, and having neither seen, nor heard of her, Iris is unsure at first on whether she should take Esme in. The story unfolds through the narrative voices of the three women it centers on.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox did as it promised: it got me mulling over the story for days after I’d turned the last page. The book is written from the perspective of all the three women – Esme, Iris and Kitty. The rapid shifts in perspective and era took a little time getting used to, but it was a pleasant challenge keeping up with the narrative. I enjoyed the drama, the descriptions and the different eras. The author Maggie O’Farrell does a great job in subtly describing the horrors of bygone times, how women were expected to behave in a way society deemed appropriate, and were punished for daring to be different. Esme refused to stick to the mould society expected her to fit, expressed her opinions a bit too strongly for her family’s liking, and showed a strength which was discouraged in women during her time. This eventually led to her being institutionalized, tagged as “mentally unstable”, and committed to an asylum for the biggest part of her life.

Esme’s story is told in a seemingly casual, mostly disjointed way. The horrible crime committed against her, the wasting away of her life, the people who were the reason behind it, the immense, shocking truths which emerge, and ultimately Esme’s revenge for her lost years and the injustice done to her, are the focal point of the novel. One can’t help but feel for Esme. It is only towards the end that the whole story with its many narratives comes together like the pieces of a complex puzzle and reveals the complete picture. At parts, there is an ambiguity in the narration, which leaves the reader guessing what exactly happened. Many questions are left unanswered, which only the subtlest hints and my own imagination could piece together. This very quality is what left me pondering over the book long after finishing it.

The one major qualm I have is that the side-stories and -characters aren’t well developed. The beginnings of the side stories are promising, but do not deliver. I didn’t care much for the storyline happening in the present. Thankfully, it is just a minor part of the novel. Also, I can’t honestly say I am satisfied with the ending, neither am I smitten by the writing style.

Apart from that, the novel is haunting, shocking, complex and compelling. It forced me to reflect on what I’d read, trying to find answers, trying to make connections, and trying to understand. There are a few drawbacks, but I’d still recommend this book for everything else it offers. And it offers a lot.

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