Bev Hankins's Reviews > The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
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Jun 08, 11

bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction
Read from June 07 to 08, 2011

What would you do if you suddenly found out you had a relative of whom you had never heard? Someone who's very existence had been written out of the family history? And not only that this person exists, but that she has been kept in a mental institution and now needs a care-giver--and you're the one listed as the responsible individual in all the records. This is the dilemmma that faces Iris Lockhart. Iris owns her own vintage clothing shop and is trying to manage her own personal life when she is contacted about the welfare of her great-aunt.


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a haunting, disturbing, multi-layered novel. It tells the story of Esme (Euphemia) Lennox, a woman who has been locked away in a mental institution for over sixty years. The narrative uses the memories of Esme and her sister Kitty to slowly reveal the reason Esme was initially placed in the institution. It weaves Esme's story into the life of her great-niece and uses the contrast between the relative freedom that Iris enjoys in today's society and the prescribed life that Esme was expected to live. It is Esme's inability to live within those boundaries that makes her different--and the combination of loves, hates and jealousies that follow her choices in life, as well has her family's inability to accept her differences that result in her imprisonment in the institution.

It is very shocking to discover how little it took to have a woman "put away" in pre-World War II Britain. A husband could be rid of a "disobedient" wife; families could send away and forget about "unruly" daughters; anything inconvenient or "different" could be swept under the carpet and forgotten about--all you needed was one little signature from your local GP. As shocking as this book is, it is also very amazing that Esme kept as much of her spirit as she did. So many women who weren't really mad when first locked away soon lost hope and gave up--even to the point of succumbing to the madness they were initially (and wrongly) accused of.

This was an incredibly fast read. There was a bit of stream of consciousness going on (and we all know how much I love that), but it didn't distract from the story. I was totally caught up in the past and trying to figure out what exactly happened. The ending is a bit shocking as well--but my only quibble with that is the way we're left dangling. A little bit more tidiness would have been more satisfying. But overall--a terrific read. Four and a half stars.
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