The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
by Maggie O'Farrell
by Maggie O'Farrell
Iris is a woman living a normal, but complicated life. She’s having an affair with a married man and has a close relationship with her step-brother Alex. Everything in her world is thrown completely off balance when she finds out her great-aunt Esme, who she didn’t know existed, has been in a mental institution for 60 years.
The narrative flips the POV between Iris in present day, Esme as a young woman and an elderly woman and Esme’s sister Kitty. This works beautifully, giving us small pieces of the puzzle as we go. Because of this style I don’t know if I would have liked this one if I hadn’t read it in one sitting. Reading it that way was perfect because as it flipped back and forth in time I could just stay in the midst of everything and keep it all straight.
The book is really about women and the way “mental illness” was treated in the past. I’ve always been interested in that and so Vanishing appealed to me. Iris’ plot wasn’t as important to me, but I thought Esme was fascinating. It’s terrifying to think about how misunderstood women sometimes were. A strong will was often treated like a disease and the women were often powerless to defend themselves. There are many other books that touch on this issue; both Fingersmith and The Woman in White come to mind.
I’ve heard a few people say they aren’t sure about the details of the ending. Did Esme kill Kitty? Was Esme really Iris’ grandmother? To those questions I would say yes and yes, at least that’s how I took it. Does anyone who has read it have a different opinion?
“We are all just vessels through which identities pass: we are features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our ancestors.”
BOTTOM LINE: An incredible look at the disturbing ease in which women were shuffled off to an insane asylum only a few decades ago. If at all possible, read this whole book at one time. It’s a quick read, but I can see how the POV would be confusing if you were picking it up and putting it down.
For another review Giraffe Days