A Review – “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

By Maggie O’Farrell

Harcourt Brace, 2007

I am going to pound the drums in recommending this literary gem by Maggie O’Farrell, a must read for this or any other year. This book is a sterling example of those rare and special moments when a book comes at me with such imagination, originality, and clarity of purpose that I fall into it as if possessed. The writing, the inventive plot, the dialogue, and the characterizations all knock the literary ball out of the park.

Such is the joy of reading something new that takes me so far outside myself that I glory in the book and mentally give copious thanks to the author who has somehow been inspired to give me so much pleasure. This is an extraordinary literary effort by Scottish author O’Farrell.

The read was so fascinating that I came away with the distinct impression that it is far shorter than its 245 pages. Like all good books, I wish that it might have gone on for at least a little more. There will always be a question or two that remains unanswered, and this book in particular cries out for an epilogue since the ending can be interpreted in different ways. No matter, I interpreted the ending that pleases me the most.

While the subject matter of familial abandonment to a horrible fate is disturbing to contemplate, this book is not. Lest you run in fear and terror at the possibility of confronting another didactic tome that beats you over the head with polemics, please rest assured that this is not at all the case. This book discards judgment in favor of love and discovery. This is a story of a life lost but recovered once again. Please do not forego consideration of this book because of its troubling theme, which is actually gently dealt with in order to advance its unusual plot.

In a day and age where women have achieved positions of distinction and power all over the world, it is easy to forget the plight of women during the not so distant past (or even today in other societies). O’Farrell chose to address the decidedly second class status of women, especially among the upper classes of England, prior to World War II.

It wasn’t just the right to vote, but so much more that remained to be achieved early in the twentieth century. At the time many hospitals littered the landscape as remnants of the poor houses and health sanitariums from the previous century. Male heads of the family still had considerable latitude to commit the female members of their families to these asylums if they tried to live outside of the societal constraints of the era.

In addition to those who actually suffered from mental illness, young girls were often committed if they were deemed to be too wild or too promiscuous. The sanitariums also served to house girls who became pregnant out of wedlock as a place to stay until the birth of their children. An unscrupulous and uncaring father of means could take this opportunity to desert his errant daughter to the care of the asylum if he felt unwilling to take her back into normal family life. She was left there without recourse and without rights, perhaps assumed by the unfeeling staff to be insane and possibly dangerous merely because she hadn’t behaved properly on the outside. Nineteenth century author Wilkie Collins addressed this same theme in his exquisitely written, The Woman in White.

Shocking indeed, this work of fiction tells the story of one Esme Lennox who was committed to Caulderstone Hospital during the 1930s as a young teenager. Annie was neither wild nor promiscuous; she was committed because she was thought to be different. Her father had been a diplomat who was stationed in India, but had returned to his estate in Scotland while Annie and her sister, Kitty, were still young girls. Developing circumstances created the opportunity for her admission and subsequent abandonment.

Mention of Annie was forbidden among the family members, so 60 years later Iris Lockhart is shocked to find out that her grandmother has a sister, a situation which came to light only because Caulderstone has been sold for land development and the hospital is trying to shunt all of the remaining patients onto whoever might be able to care for them or claim them as relatives. The hospital administrators turn to Iris because she has legal guardianship of her aged and unwell grandmother in lieu of her mother who lives outside the country.

The unmarried Iris lives by herself and gets by managing a shop that specializes in the sale of vintage dresses, so she vacillates at the idea of dealing with a long lost relative, especially one from the "looney bin." Her friends are even more discouraging, but family loyalty and her innate curiosity leave her wondering who this Esme is and what she is like.

O’Farrell writes this tale in such a lively manner that it melds into a Gothic mystery about life and family. The author has all of the major characters voicing their interior thoughts, so we always know more than the individual characters. Iris, of course, frets over this dramatic new change in her life while she tries to rise to the challenge of patching together the mystery of just what had happened to condemn her great aunt to such a horrible fate.

Esme Lennox, who has survived for her entire life by retreating inside herself for refuge from a world that does not understand her, captures intricate pictures of the past with near perfect memory while she observes the present in childlike wonderment. More challenging yet are the thoughts of her sister, Kitty. O’Farrell is brilliant in her creation of the fragmentary thoughts of a sad woman suffering from Alzheimer’s whose mind flits about like a butterfly which lands on the flower but never stays quite long enough to obtain nourishment from the nectar therein.

Carl M. Zapffe is a part time resident of Gills Rock. He is a prolific writer of book and movie reviews, which he publishes on his two websites and