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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Book Review

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by Sally Writes (subscribe)
I am a freelance writer living in Gloucestershire. I have been writing family style articles in the form of columns for newspapers since 2000 and spent four years presenting an interview chat show on Forest of Dean Radio.
Published November 17th 2012
Explore the injustices of society in 1950's Edinburgh

I was looking for a book to read.

It was eldest daughter who suggested Maggie O'Farrell's "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox," as I'd previously read, and enjoyed "The Hand that First Held Mine".

Esme, or Euphemia as she is called in Cauldstone Hosptial, a psychiatric hospital where she has spent sixty years of her life, has been declared (at the ripe old age of seventy six) to be no longer in need of a full time psychiatric unit.

Unfortunately, those who had her placed there some sixty years ago are now either dead or, as in the case of her sister Kitty, in home herself with Alzheimer's Disease. So, it falls to great niece Iris to pick up the pieces.

Iris's life is already complicated. The true love of her life is a forbidden love, and she is also having an affair with a married man. Then she gets a call about a woman that she has never heard of, asking if she will consider taking care of her for the rest of her natural life.

The narration, largely written in the third person, includes long diary entries from sister Kitty and long "voice led" passages from Esme.

The story, told beautifully, is set in 1930's Colonial India, 1950's Edinburgh, and present day Edinburgh.

Esme has been put into the hospital aged sixteen after spending a weekend screaming. Her screaming was due to having been raped at a party. But given the nature of the society structure that she is a part of, no-one would believe her if she were to tell the truth, and no-one bothers to investigate the cause of the trauma.

Instead, due to a number of spurious, unrelated and understandable teenage behaviours, she is declared insane, and carted off to Cauldstone, where she spends the next sixty years.

It turns out that Iris is not who she thinks she is. Facts have been twisted, history has been rewritten and entire existences have somehow "vanished". Esme had been called Euphemia from the day she went into Cauldstone to avoid the embarrassment for the family of having a daughter placed in such an institution. With a new name and new identity and no further mention of her in family circles, the family is clear of any difficulties associated with Esme's institutionalisation. She is in essence erased from all memories.

Needless to say, Iris comes to the rescue and, when the alternative accommodation that the social workers have found for Esme is entirely unsuitable, she takes Esme to her flat for the weekend. The flat it turns out is part of what was the large Edinburgh family home and so Esme is placed in what was "one of the servant's bedrooms". O'Farrell's wit at this point is quite evident. The innocent wonderment of 76 year old Esme contrasted with the irritation of 30 year old Iris.

As the book develops we grow to love Esme and feel utter sadness at her maltreatment sixty years earlier, which has led to an entire adult life in an institution. We feel injustice that she has been denied all normal rights and that even her sister Kitty, who she had loved so dearly, had betrayed her. We feel anger at the way the staff behave and even frustration that we cannot turn the clock back.

Sister Kitty it turns out has also had a blighted life, and other than a little bit of happiness in bringing up "the baby", has had a very rough deal from her marriage.

On balance, I thought that this was good book and I would recommend it. However, I do have a couple of issues Miss O'Farrell, which, if you ever get to read this I would be delighted to hear your views.

Firstly, I feel that Kitty's marriage story is perhaps a bridge too far. I can see that it was a tidy solution to the plot, but I'm sorry Miss O'Farrell, there is enough in the very rich story anyway.It surely isn't necessary, for convenience, to turn Kitty into a virtual nun, as well as Esme? That really is just too cruel and too sad.

And secondly, the twist at the end, without giving away too many spoilers for those who haven't yet read the book, is, for me, not as I believe it should be. You have made us love Esme and believe that she was in fact sane all along, but then, right at the end we are left with such an insane act. An act possibly done with justification, given what we know, but, nevertheless not the act that I feel should have happened.

Note: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was first published in 2006 and is an official World Book Night 2012 title.
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Why? A good read
Where: From all good bookshops. Can be bought as an Ebook for Kindles.
Cost: 5.99
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