Monday, 6 May 2013

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell

I bought The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell in a book fair for peanuts (I'm not ashamed of my purchasing criteria...).  What a great bargain!  I would never have thought it would prove to be such a good book, and how I would not only enjoy reading it, but thinking about it and about the plot in particular.  You see, I'm always interested in the background work that goes into a book.  I can almost always tell whether an author has carried out serious research for it, which means that this is a subject of interest.  I'm the scholarly type, so obviously I went and researched myself afterwards...

The point in question:  how easy it was up to the early 20th century to have a woman committed to  a psychiatric institution.  

"A man used to be able to admit his daughter or wife to an asylum with just a signature from a GP"

I was already aware of this through Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly - but in her case, she managed to get out in ten days.  How about 60 years?

British society in the early 20th century, especially in the colonies, was very procedure-oriented.  There were rules for everyone and everything, and there was no way bypassing any of them.

"... her stocking... had slipped down her leg, showing the skin between her hem and the stocking top, which, of course, wouldn't do"

This is then the story of a girl who tried to bypass these rules, who could not see herself fit in with the rest.  Euphemia - Esme - has always been the odd one out.  And while she has no vile feelings for anyone, she causes such feelings in almost everyone she meets.  Jealousy? envy? arrogance?  

"Put the book away, Esme... you have read enough for tonight"

She manages to live life to the fullest in the first 16 years of her life.  Before her parents commit her and agree never to speak of her again:

"Mother and Father had said one night, just before my wedding, that her name would not be mentioned again and that they would thank me if I would act accordingly.  And I did"

And this is how Esme is simply erased from the family's history.  Iris, the present-day granddaughter of Esme's sister, Kitty, is astounded to be contacted when the institution calls her as the only remaining relative of Esme's.  A relative she has never known existed, a person she's most uncomfortable to get to know and care for.

"It's not unusual for patients of ours to... shall we say, fall out of sight.  Euphemia has been with us a long time"

The book has a great way to go back and forth between the early life of Esme and the present day, as well as between Esme, Iris and Kitty, who is now lost in the world of Alzheimer. That way, we can witness what the background of each instant is, and more importantly, what the true reasons for Esme's commitment were.  Dark secrets ran in the family and I could not stop reading page after page, discovering that the surface of things usually has nothing to do with the harsh reality. Sibling rivalry, parents indifferent towards their children, the advantage of men to stay clear of unwanted complications in life, they all come to the surface and haunt the memories of all those involved. 

Esme's "sins" come in such a stark contrast with Iris's life today, where she is involved in relationships some would still consider immoral, unethical, unheard of -- but she goes on, living her life just as she wants to.  How times have changed, I thought, just imagine in what trouble she find would herself were she to be living in Esme's time...

Esme and Iris manage to form a  stong bond as they both try to find answers to years of questions and speculations.  The end of the novel is violent, just as violent was Esme's life in the institution.  There is no room for judgement, because the context is so multi-faceted:  who is in the end responsible for shattering and blackening one's whole life...

Also read for the 2013 TBR List challenge 


  1. It's been on my TBR pile for a while now (also a great bargain!) but I'm very curious about it. I've read The Hand That First Held Mine with my bookclub and it was a great discussion.

    1. I'll have a look at that as well! thanks for the tip

  2. This sounds like a really interesting book. I've been fascinated by the subject since reading "The Yellow Wallpaper" in college (and, then The Madwoman in the Attic, Wide Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre, etc.). I think I'll add this one to my wish list.

    1. It definitely has interesting twists I didn't expect!

  3. Sounds like an interesting book!




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