Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Number of pages: 288

Started: 24 October 2012

Finished: 30 October 2012

Opening words:

Let us begin with two girls at a dance.
They are at the edge of the room. One sits on a chair, opening and shutting a dance-card with gloved fingers. The other stands beside her, watching the dance unfold: the circling couples, the clasped hands, the drumming shoes, the whirling skirts, the bounce of the floor. It is the last hour of the year and the windows behind them are blank with night. The seated girl is dressed in something pale, Esme forgets what, the other in a dark red frock that doesn’t suit her. She has lost her gloves. It begins here.

Plot summary:

Edinburgh in the 1930s.  The Lennox family is having trouble with its youngest daughter.  Esme is outspoken, unconventional, and repeatedly embarrasses them in polite society.  Something will have to be done.

Years later, a young woman named Iris Lockhart receives a letter informing her that she has a great-aunt in a psychiatric unit who is about to be released.

Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris's questions.  What could Esme have done to warrant a lifetime in an institution?  And how is it possible for a person to be so completely erased from a family's  history?

What I thought:

This was an intriguing book that told the story of Esme Lennox, a recently discovered aged aunt, and what, some sixty years ago, caused her to be placed in a psychiatric hospital and promptly forgotten – to such a degree that later generations did not even know of her existence.  It was a well written tale with some nice observations and some amusing moments.  As the story unfolded, my frustration grew as the realisation began to dawn on me about why she might have been treated in this way, and that the state would have allowed someone to remain in their care for decades on end.

The book leaves some loose ends, but deservedly so.  Depending on how you interpret the circumstances of the past and then the present, I suspect there is potential to draw very different conclusions about how unjust (if at all) things were.  I think it is therefore fair to say that it was an intriguing read and one that will mean different things to different people.

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