I’m sorry for being mostly absent this week! I need to get new glasses and am now trying out contact lenses. The contact lenses are too strong, my glasses are too weak. Not ideal for reading or staring at the computer screen. But I’m hoping to get that figured out this week and get back to reading (without headaches) and reviewing.
Iris Lockhart is notified that her great-aunt Euphemia (Esme) Lennox is being released from Cauldstone Hospital where she was had been committed sixty years before. But Iris has no knowledge of a great-aunt, her grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child.
The story is narrated by Iris, Esme and Kitty (who suffers from Alzheimer’s and her narrative therefore consists mostly of disconnected memories) and it soon becomes obvious that there is a secret buried in the family’s past, and not just the “vanishing” of Esme. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is made up of these three narrative voices and jumps between the points of view of the narrators as well as in time. Far from being an only child, Kitty grew up in colonial India with Esme and their younger brother. When the brother and their Aya die from cholera, the family moves to Scotland. The transition from India to Scotland is especially difficult for Esme who is considered wild. Gone is the heat and the loose cotton dresses are replaced by a strict dress code with layers of clothes in a society where not wearing gloves signals something about a girl’s reputation and availability. While Kitty seems to bloom in such an environment, Esme has no interest in these conventions and simply wishes to continue her education. She is a young woman trapped in the conventions of the 1930s, in a family where she really only gets along with her sister, and she is not. Esme is only sixteen when she is locked up in the psychiatric ward. Don’t worry, I won’t tell you why or how exactly that happens, but part of the horror comes from the realization that Esme was robbed of sixty years, of nearly her whole life.
What really happened all those years ago is slowly revealed by piecing together the different narrative strands. I think it’s not too difficult to figure the secret and the ending out, but O’Farrell does a great job of moving the gothic novel to modern Scotland. The ingredients are all there and reading this book is just as atmospheric an experience as reading a classic gothic story. Although the twist wasn’t that surprising to me, I wasn’t really bothered. Esme is a fascinating character and O’Farrell raises so interesting topics that I was occupied enough. Reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reminded me again that I desperately want to read Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi and now I also need to find some books on British children raised in India who were shipped “home” when they were teenagers. I think I’ve only really read about those going to the colonies, not those born and raised there.
There was so much positive feedback on this book that I dreaded not liking it because my expectations were too high, but I really enjoyed it and can’t help but recommend. The only aspect I didn’t like so much was the relationship between Iris and her step-brother, but that’s a side-story completely overshadowed by Esme’s vanishing. But those of you who have read this novel, were you put out by the side-story?
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!