With an undertone of Gothic horror, Maggie O’Farrell’s 2006 novel, The vanishing Act of Esme Lennox brings to light the unsettling era when mothers, wives or daughters could be swept away into an asylum at the slightest hint of hysteria. The vanishing act of Esme Lennox reads with a nod towards other classics making it more of a love child of Ian McEwans Atonement and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
When unruly teenager Esme Lennox returns home one evening apparently hysterical after a local dance, she is taken away to an asylum. In the beginning Esme thinks she will once again return to her home, even though she is disliked terribly by her own mother and father, it’s her sister, Kitty she pines for.
The story is then told through flashbacks; snippets written as though they are the snatched memories that we all recall. We hear from both Kitty and Esme but both memories are woven so tightly and recalled by two older women’s memories, which time and circumstance has clearly blighted, that there’s room for confusion, even for the reader.
The novel is set in the present day when Iris Lockhart receives notice of an elderly aunt in a psychiatric unit which is about to be closed. Iris must put aside her own complicated life to help her Aunt.
Against the backdrop of the haunting Edwardian Era of fowl play, sexism, violence and apparent madness, O’Farrell has written a beautiful subplot with the supporting cast of a man and a woman so intent to conceal their growing love for one another that even a mad woman can see it.
The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox was everything I wanted it to be and more. With two intensely contrasting stories being told side by side, this book is an exploration of the way women were still being treated just a few decades ago. It is at times an uncomfortable window into the asylum units used to ‘keep women safe from themselves’ if they showed the slightest hint at veering from society’s norms and expectations. With many of Maggie O’Farrells novels, at the heart is family saga, love and on this occasion a magnificent twist.
The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell