Saturday, 2 February 2019

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
First published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the UK in October 2007.

This was my 10th book for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

How I got this book:
Borrowed the ebook from my partner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


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?

Dave's daughter Carrie recommended The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox to us months before I actually bought it and it was another book that sat unread on my Kindle when I should have gotten to it far sooner!

The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox is a short, but powerful novel which examines definitions of madness and the terrible treatment meted out to socially embarrassing women not so many years ago. Euphemia Esme Lennox was born in India six years after her older sister Kitty. An 'odd' child, Esme doesn't conform to social norms which exasperates her mother. She displays such outrageous notions as using her imagination and sees nothing wrong with walking around barefoot! Unbelievable behaviour! When the family return to repressed Edinburgh Society after a disastrous experience in India (I won't say what happens!) Esme's strangeness appears even more pronounced, leading her family to believe that 'something' must be done. Sixty years later, great-niece Iris suddenly discovers Esme's existence when her asylum is due for closure. Iris is summoned to the rescue of this now-elderly woman who had been completely erased from family memory.

I loved the characters in this book. O'Farrell manages to convey so much emotion and understanding through relatively simple prose and I felt that I came to know everyone in this tragic tale well. I was horrified to realise that, while not a true story in itself, the situation portrayed in The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox was disturbingly common up to at least the middle of the last century, affecting hundreds of British women. Especially upsetting to me was the hospital staff calling for 'Euphemia'. Even something as basic as Esme's preferred name has been completely ignored for six decades! And the big question of whether she is, or was, insane is cleverly answered by contrasting scenes from Esme's point of view with insights into the thoughts of now-Alzheimer's ridden Kitty. Fabulous writing!

While not actually a depressing novel to read, I came away from it feeling shocked and saddened. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will definitely be seeking out more of O'Farrell's writing.


Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Maggie O'Farrell / Historical fiction / Books from Northern Ireland

8 comments:

  1. "This was my 10th book for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge." What? I'm guessing this is a reread lol. Wow! This is a pretty messed up situation. 60 years she could be just put away and no new laws or anything protects her? Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if something like this could happen nowadays. I don't trust doctors and mental hospitals at all. I know this situation where doctors refused to let my cousin take medicine that would help with his pain. They wanted to give him something else that would not work which he knew because it is a very small amount of what he had been taking before. He has a really serious chronic pain that doesn't go away. It's interesting that this wasn't depressing because everything behind it was :P

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    1. Sorry, yes, I occasionally pull over neglected old reviews from my personal blog to keep up with the Book A Day here!

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  2. I am glad that this recommendation was so perfect for you and that you could enjoy it so much! I haven't read many historical fiction set in Scotland and the topic it deals with sounds so important!! I also really like the sound of these characters. You've got really convinced with this review ^.^

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  3. I completely understand why you would come away feeling so sad. Stories like this are so hard to read; great review!

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    1. It's a tough read emotionally, but absolutely worth the effort. A very memorable novel

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  4. This sounds so completely up my alley! I absolutely ADORE books that examine madness and it's changing definitions within society (A Madness So Discreet is one of my favorite books for this reason) and this sounds like such an interesting take on the topic. Crossing my fingers my local library system has a copy!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

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    1. If your library doesn't have a copy of Esme Lennox, or at least the capability to order one in, throw a major hissy fit! They absolutely should have this amazing novel :-)

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