This is my review of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.
This intriguing, well-observed, at times intolerably sad and shocking tale is a cross-over between popular and literary fiction. The author reveals the drama with great skill, weaving back and forth in time from the different viewpoints of the three main female characters: Esme, her sister Kitty and great-niece, Iris. We piece together the chain of events, stemming from Esme’s lively curiosity and inability to conform to the stifling middle-class values of the early C20, which lead to her incarceration in a mental hospital for over sixty years. It is salutary to learn, or be reminded, that a number of women really did suffer this fate. This contrasts with the freedom taken for granted by Iris, two generations on, as she runs her own quirky business, lives independently with a dog but no partner, and has temporary affairs, always drawn back to what feels like an incestuous relationship with her married step-brother.
At first I thought that Esme had been implausibly unaffected psychologically by her ordeal, and that the mental institution was not nearly as grim as it would have been in reality. Gradually, the full horror of the regime Esme has suffered becomes apparent, all the more so because it is revealed subtly, with much implied and left to the imagination. It also becomes clear how Esme manages to hold on to her sanity by “vanishing” or retreating in her mind back to the happier moments of her life in India as a young child, or with the sister for whom she had a great affection. Part of the suspense lies in wondering what violence may be unleashed in the outwardly calm and rationale, if eccentric, Esme, when she allows herself to release some of the emotion that has been suppressed.
The plot relies on a few details which seem quite unlikely, but it is fairly easy to overlook this. Although other reviewers have criticised the ending, it seems on reflection to be perhaps the best the author could have come up with, leading as it does to debate on how and why it occurs, and what is likely to happen next.
The strength of this book lies in the fact that, although the theme is depressing in theory, and the sheer waste of Esme’s life is appalling, these aspects are offset by numerous humorous incidents together with her sheer vitality, thought-provoking comments on life and powers of endurance.
This story is likely to stay with you longer than other more pretentious and self-regarding works.