Genre: Adult, General/Literary Fiction
Release Date: 17/05/07
Originally Published: 2006
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 is the second book I've read by Maggie O'Farrell. Apart from the fact I'd already read something by the author - and liked it - I was interested to read this because it was about/had something to do with the idea of mental instability and because part of the novel was set in the 1930s. I really like books with an inconsistent timeline and there's something about madness; I'm half fascinated with it and half horrified by it. I just had to read it.
One very strange thing about this novel was that it had no chapters. The writer skipped between the three characters and the different eras in time every so many paragraphs. I don't know if this was a good thing or not. I sometimes found that it confused me. I think this is one of the reasons that I read the book so quickly. Normally when I read a novel I can say "I'll just finish this chapter and then I can do... (Whatever it was that I was supposed to do)", instead with 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox' I found that I was reading the book in chunks, because there were no new chapters with numbers or pretty font to remind me that I needed to put the book down.
Once again I really did enjoy the author's writing. It was descriptive, yet still to-the-point. One of the review quotes inside the front of the novel accurately uses stained glass as an analogy for the writing. This writer also uses the setting to her advantage. By creating characters that lived in the same house during different eras O'Farrell was able to emphasise the time in which the character Esme had spent in the asylum through the mention of changes that had taken place in those rooms.
The title 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox', not only refers to Esme's 60 year stint in a mental hospital, but the way that she loses focus of her surroundings in other parts of the novel. This novel conveyed a different idea of 'Vanishing' than what I was used to. Esme didn't really disappear. Her family knew where she was and made her disappear out of pride. Any other character who didn't know any better didn't know that she'd vanished, because they were never aware of her existence.
As I was reading this novel I was having a constant battle with my self as to whether or not Esme was really mad. When she was a child she had imaginary friends, she spaced out occasionally and she quickly gave up on things that didn't interest her. I thought all of these things seemed a bit like symptoms for some sort of attention deficit disorder? Which of course probably wasn't a real thing in the 1930s. After being denied what she calls her "rights" (Again in the 1930s, these "rights" were probably known as "radical ideas"), being disapproved of for dressing up in her mothers clothes (Something I would have thought quite typical for a teenager to do) and being sexually abused she is sent to the asylum kicking and screaming all the way. She is diagnosed with some form of Schizophrenia and locked away for 60 something years. I think it was all a bit too extreme. I can understand that it was likely to happen. In those days all you needed was a few half truths, approval from the patient's father and a signature from a GP to have the person in question locked away. I just think her family was so outrageous for doing that to her, for letting her disappear. So, yes I was starting to think that maybe Esme wasn't as mental as everyone said she was, but just because she isn't mad doesn't mean she isn't capable of doing crazy things. She is human after all...
The way that Esme was treated reminded me of other novels such as 'Speak' and 'The Bell Jar'. Because everyone was so concerned with being proud and proper, nobody really tried to understand the protagonist. Obviously the protagonist may appear to be a little at fault here too(for not speaking up), but in that era where everybody is so conservative I doubt anyone would have wanted to listen.
I enjoyed learning about the character Iris as well. I thought that the different affairs that took place in Iris's life really balanced out the forced relationships in Esme's life. Iris is also a perfect example of a modern female to contrast with Esme. While both characters share similar traits, Iris was allowed to pursue her rights because of the time in which she was born. Iris wears pants, has short hair, owns her own business, lives alone and has relations with people she isn't married to. By creating this contrast we have been positioned to view Esme's life as being one that wasn't very fair.
I found the ending of this book to be sudden, shocking and a little vague. It's pretty obvious what happens, but it's not said in so many words. 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox' had an ending that reminded me a little of 'Mrs Dalloway' by Virginia Woolf(Which I wasn't a huge fan of). I think this novel bested Woolf's due to the crisper writing and an ending that is easier to decipher. As far as 'Mrs Dalloway' goes I have no idea what actually happened.
Overall, I gave this novel 4.5 stars. This novel was a little unfinished for me. Even though I can guess what might happen or can imagine what I want to happen I think I might have enjoyed having a bit more closure and known for sure. I think I enjoyed 'The hand that first held mine' more than 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox', but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I am definitely going to continue reading books by this author in the future.
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