I love a novel with different points of view telling the same story, and I enjoyed reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell. It’s a quick read – only 240 pages – and beautifully crafted. Several passages I reread many times, just to savor them a while longer.
Esme and Kitty Lennox grew up Irish children living in colonial India. After the death of their little brother, the girls are deeply affected and the family returns to Edinburgh. There, they live with their authoritarian grandmother and attend a formal private school. Highly intelligent and somewhat rebellious, Esme has a difficult time fitting in with polite society. Nor does she care for what is expected of her: to conform, to behave, and, someday, to marry. But nothing else. After a traumatic event at a party, Esme confides to her sister that she sometimes experiences hallucinations. The family decides to have Esme committed.
Sixty-one years later, the hospital is being closed and Iris Lockhart, Esme’s only living relative, is called to take her in. When Esme learns that Kitty is alive and in a nursing home, she wants to visit her, and Iris learns of her family’s secrets.
Maggie O’Farrell weaves in several themes throughout her novel: secrets, feminism and the way psychiatry was used to control women who refused a conventional life. Iris finds old hospital records and reads of “refusals to speak, of unironed clothes, of arguments with neighbors, of hysteria, of unwashed dishes and unswept floors, of never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough or not in the right way or seeking them elsewhere. Of husbands at the ends of their tethers, of parents unable to understand the women their daughters have become, or fathers who insist, over and over again, that she used to be such a lovely little thing."
If you have read my short story "What She Needs," it's not astonishing to think that this kind of story would appeal to me.
It’s a gorgeous book. Check it out.