I’ve just returned home from a two week break in Ontario, Canada. My husband and I stayed with friends in London (built on the Thames River, of course) and we watched a musical in Stratford, Ontario, built on the Avon River. I can appreciate how nostalgic for home those early settlers in Canada must have been. London in Ontario also has streets named after areas in the British capital such as Kensington and Piccadilly. Back in the 1800’s, when people left home they left for good. This was certainly the case in my home country of Ireland.
When I was departing for my next destination, my Canadian friend pressed Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox into my hands. I’m so glad she did.
A literary novel that tells a good story
Maggie O’Farrell lives in Edinburgh in Scotland and I’ve read several of her novels. I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which is definitely a literary novel but also has a good story at the heart of it. The character of Esme drew me in and her early years as a child growing up in India reminded me of that children’s classic much beloved by adults called The Secret Garden. Mary Lennox is orphaned by a cholera epidemic and Esme Lennox (they both have the same surname) loses her baby brother in a similar outbreak.
Iris, the young protagonist in the present, is contacted out of the blue by a psychiatric unit insisting that she has a great-aunt in their care who they want to release back into society. Iris has never heard of Esme, never even known she exists and the only person who should know, her grandmother and Esme’s sister Kitty, is in a nursing home with dementia and doesn’t recognise anyone.
Should she take responsibility for her great-aunt Esme Lennox when she’s never met her?
So what should Iris do? She’s reluctant to take responsibility for an elderly relation she has never seen and her step-brother tries to convince her it could be a dangerous step. Iris eventually decides to visit Esme and ends up taking her home to her apartment.
The story is told through the viewpoints of the three women: Iris, Esme and the grandmother Kitty. Kitty’s rambling and jumbled recollections gradually make the reader aware that something terrible is worrying her. Something she did in her past many years ago.
Esme’s thoughts flit from India to Scotland in the 1930’s. She was an unusual child who didn’t care about society in those days and its strict code of conduct. Esme grows up different to other young women who think only about marriage and she yearns to be allowed to continue her education. Her parents don’t agree and, after her baby brother dies, show little compassion for her truly harrowing experience.
At the age of sixteen, after a number of incidents that seem commonplace today, poor Esme is committed to a local psychiatric hospital, a family embarrassment who is locked away for sixty years. Her life and future are stolen from her.
It’s both horrifying and fascinating. It is also curiously satisfying. I couldn’t put the book down as I neared the end. I won’t say what happens in case you want to read it but I didn’t expect it to turn out the way it did. The events lingered in my memory for days afterwards. The novel is beautifully written with only the essential details sketched in. I would recommend The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.