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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
Headline Review 2007 (2006)
Trade Paperback
277 pages
Historical Fiction

Every now and then you come across a book so perfectly whole, so complete in itself, that you marvel as you read. It has such flow, such control of style, such effortless prose, that it’s almost impossible to put it down. Such a book is The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I could have easily read in one sitting except I had to go to work.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is the story of three women and the burning secrets that affected them all. Iris Lockhart is a young, single, modern women living in Edinburgh, having an affair with a married man and pretending to herself that she didn’t once have a secret relationship with her step-brother, Alex. But it’s her life, and when she gets a call about a great-aunt locked up in a mental institute – an aunt she never knew existed – she wants none of the responsibility. Apart from her grandmother, Kitty, who has Alzheimer’s, Iris is the only family member left.

The great-aunt, Esme Lennox, is Kitty’s younger sister. She’s been locked away in Cauldstone for the last sixty years – since she was sixteen. Why? That is Esme’s story to tell. But she was locked away, and vanished, and forgotten. Now she enters Iris’ life, and what was started all those years ago must find an ending, a resolution.

Esme’s story is gripping. Esme the girl comes across strongly, vividly, an immediately familiar presence. An odd child, she grew into a modern teen who eschewed marriage and wanted to go to university. She didn’t abide by the family’s class-conscious values and was always going out without a hat on, or would forget her gloves. These weren’t her only crimes. There’s also a boy, and where there’s a boy, there’s trouble.

The novel revolves around Esme’s past, from her childhood in India to her school life in Edinburgh, and her early experiences in the asylum. Her story is complemented by Iris’s messy life and Kitty’s meandering thoughts as she strays randomly through the paths of her memories. Like an intricate tapestry, the scenes from the past weave together to make a whole, a powerful, moving story that’s simple, cruel and tragic.

What makes this story so beautiful and flow so well, is the prose. Told mostly in present tense, it shifts to past effortlessly, usually without me even noticing. That’s actually hard to do – shift seamlessly, that is! I did have to read the first two pages twice, to get into the flow of how it was written, but after that it was like being picked up on a breath of memory and carried along, weightless, but ever observant. There are no chapter breaks, only section breaks to separate voice, and this adds to that feeling of flow, that great momentum that the story has. From the first page, you need to know what happens, and what happened.

It is fitting to use present tense, to create a sense of timelessness, a sense of every memory having relevance. Kitty’s memories don’t stick out and jar, told as they are in Kitty’s confused, muddled voice – confused but clear; that kind of paradox that’s hard to describe but can be created nonetheless. Her voice is distinct, different from Esme’s troubled mind. Again the use of present tense works to allow their memories to merge, to show how lost they are in these memories. It’s like music, a song being played, the instruments breath and memory and loss and hope.

It’s horrible to think how easy it was to lock up your wayward daughter or reluctant (or “over-sexed”) wife or troublesome sister. Esme wasn’t an exceptional case. And this carried on well into the twentieth century. It is just one kind of crime against women. You’d like to think that it couldn’t happen anymore but it does, in various forms.

Some people found that there were too many loose ends, and the ending was too vague and open. I didn’t find that there were any loose ends. Everything came together satisfactorily, and without any padding (it’s a pretty short book, especially with how fast you can read it). And the ending, the ending was so right for the story. Yes it is somewhat open, but enough is shown to see where it will probably go, for good or worse.

I wanted to share some quotes, as examples of prose. As usual, I didn’t mark any exceptional quotes – this time because I was so caught up in the story it was hard to stop reading. I would share some drawn randomly, but I find that without context the magic falls away and the words become just … words. Interesting how that happens.

As a last note, my thanks to those who recommended this book. You were right!

8 comments to Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

  • I’m glad to read that you enjoyed this one, it’s been on my TBR list ever since I read and loved The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. It is disturbing how easily women could get locked away into those sorts of institutions in the past.


    Shannon Reply:

    I’d love to read her other books – I haven’t seen any around (she doesn’t seem to be well-known here?) so I might have to order it. I’ll start with that one 😀


  • I have this book, I was lucky enough to pick this up in a 2nd hand book store but along with about 50 other books its just sitting there waiting for me to read it.


    Shannon Reply:

    I have that problem too Jessica – only try 650+ other books to read! 50 I could handle 😉 I strongly recommend it moves up your pile 🙂


  • Isn’t this book just wonderful, Shannon? I read it in one sitting too; I just didn’t want to put it down.


    Shannon Reply:

    YES! Thanks Boof – Your recommendations are excellent!


  • Aimee

    I loved this book so much I decided to study it for my HSC… its perfect for belonging!


  • Angee

    i loved this book finished it in hours but i dont know how to construct this book into journeys… could anyone help?


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