Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

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!

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24 thoughts on “Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

  1. I hope you feel better soon! It’s always difficult for me to adjust to my new glasses, but never a problem with contact lenses. Hope you have a more liberating experience with the contact lenses!! 😀

    1. Thanks, Jo! I’m loving contact lenses and I’m getting new ones this week which will hopefully have the correct dioptrin. Till then I’m switching between getting headaches from my glasses and vertigo from the lenses ;P

  2. I just recently read this and I loved it as well. The side story didn’t bother me and I loved the gothic aspects to this novel. I can’t wait to read more by this author! Great review (hopefully I’ll get my review of it posted shortly)!

    1. Do let me know when you’ve posted your review and I’ll link to it 🙂

      I loved the gothic aspect as well. The side story felt simply unnecessary to me and distracted from the fantastic story around Esme, I thought.

  3. Aww not to worry I’ve been reading less as well recently due to sinus headaches which I suffer with when the weather changes so dramatically 😦 Oh well glad here we’re both on the mend. This book sounds very intriguing I must add it to my TBR list.

    1. Oh I hope you feel better soon, Jessica! Sinus headaches are nasty!

      This is a book I’d really recommend especially with the cold weather which is so perfect for gothic reads 🙂

  4. I felt the side story was a bit unnecessary – perhaps it was there to give some distraction from Esme (I was much more interested in her story though). I really like Maggie O’Farrell’s books, they always keep me thinking long after the book is finished.

  5. Hope you are able to find the right glasses / contacts that you like, Bina.

    Glad to know that you liked Maggie O’Farrell’s book. I enjoyed her first book ‘After you’d gone’ very much. I haven’t read this one yet, and I will add it to my ‘TBR’ list.

    From your review it looks like she depicts the displacment of children from one country to another quite well. I have seen that when people go to live in another country, they let their hair down and enjoy their lives more easily, but when they come back to their home country, they feel that they have to follow all the old social rules and tie themselves up. It confuses children no end to find their parents change in such a drastic way. It looks like O’Farrell’s book is a little bit about this.

    1. After You’d Gone sounds really good, and I definitely will read more by her!

      I like your point about how people behave differently at home and in other countries. In this case, they had an aya in India who took care of them for the most part, and back in Scotland their grandmother took charge of their education and tried to make them fit in with society.

  6. I need to read this, if only because it has a character named Iris 🙂 But seriously, like you I have heard so many good things about this book. I’m glad it lived up to your expectations!

  7. I really want to read this one! I read my first Maggie O’Farrell earlier this year and really really enjoyed it, so I want to read as much of her back catalog as I possibly can. This is at the very top of the list!

    1. This is a wonderful book, hope you’ll enjoy it! Which other one did you read by her? I really want to read her other books now as well, just don’t know which one to turn to next 🙂

    1. Ah yes, the ending 🙂 I actually liked it and thought it was very appropriate, but that’s different for every reader of course. At least you liked the rest of the novel 🙂

  8. Your review really made me take notice and I’m writing this one down next. The experience of being bought up in the colonies to going back “home” has got to be completely an imbalanced reality. Imagine all that you’ve grown accustomed to being ripped to shreds and new realities setting in. Customs being different and socializing in a world we’ve heard about but never lived in. Going to note this one down and great review Bina.

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