I have a been a fan of contemporary British novelist Maggie O’Farrell since I read her gorgeous novel After You’d Gone (2000 – winner of the Betty Trask prize) quite a few years ago, followed by the equally charming and poignant, The Distance Between Us (2004 – winner of the Somerset Maugham award). Her prose is exquisite and she writes about the relationships between sisters, loss and the psychological impact of loss with total truth and conviction.
I’m behind on reading her most recent works but finished reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) a little over a week ago. “O’Farrell’s fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters’ inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.” The story investigates an appalling chapter in Britain’s history, the practice of disposing of “difficult” women by sending them to psychiatric institutions.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reads like you’re watching a film flashing back and forth between the 1930s and the 1990s. It is the compelling tale of two sisters, Esme and Kitty, and Kitty’s granddaughter Iris, who suddenly finds herself introduced to a great aunt she never knew she had and for whom she wants no responsibility, and who subsequently unravels the Lennox family’s long hidden secrets. The story is told without chapters and morphs back and forth between Esme Lennox’s childhood in 1930s Edinburgh and Iris Lockhart’s present as a single woman who owns a vintage clothing shop, is carrying on an affair with a married man named Luke, and who harbors her own secrets about her relationship with her step-brother Alex.
Beautifully written in the present tense with an obvious love of language – many of the sections in this story start with a dash and are like pieces of a story cut out of another book and carefully pasted into this one in sequence – O’Farrell paints her settings with precise brush strokes of carefully chosen words, each one in its place to achieve maximum advantage.
At the beginning of Esme’s story, she and her family live in colonial Bombay. We soon realize that Esme is a precocious child, a dreamer who sees the world with very different eyes than those of her sister Kitty. Esme is inquisitive and stubborn with a vivid fantasy life (she can hear trees crying) but has been labeled “impossible, disobedient, unteachable, a liar…” Her mother ties her to a chair at dinner so that she won’t slip under the table to study all of the strange and interesting things going on beneath it. In contrast, Kitty, who is six years older than Esme, is a normal, well-behaved girl who does what she’s told. We learn that their baby brother Hugo and “ayah” Jamila died of typhoid at the same time when they were girls, an event which resulted in their father moving the family to Edinburgh.
In the 1990s, Iris is telephoned by a hospital official who declares that she is the contact family member of one Euphemia Esme Lennox, the sister that she didn’t know that her grandmother Kitty – currently living with Alzheimer’s – had. Esme has been locked up in a psychiatric asylum for over 60 years and now the facility is closing down and its patients have to be relocated. When suitable accommodations can’t be found, Iris ends up taking Esme (diagnosed with bipolar disorder) in to live with her in the house that was once owned by Esme’s father and gradually a sad and shocking mystery unfolds as the two women get to know each other.
We discover that Esme had been raped by a young man (Jamie Dalziel) whose parents her family had known, a man who was meant to court Kitty but who ended up preferring Esme’s direct but quirky personality instead. Esme didn’t know she was pregnant when her parents, finally fed up with her tantrums and unpredictable behaviour, decided to have her committed to Cauldstone. Months later, in the psychiatric hospital, Esme gives birth to a baby boy who she is allowed to hold for a few seconds before he is violently snatched away in an altercation that ends up with a distraught Esme in restraints.
In the meantime, in the flashbacks of Kitty’s life, we learn that she married a man named Duncan who was also a virgin and so uncomfortable and unknowledgeable about sex, that they never consummated their union. One day Kitty goes to the hospital to visit Esme, and although she never actually sees her, she finds out about her baby. Kitty, who wants a child so badly but can’t have one with her husband, asks her father for permission to raise Esme’s son and concocts a scheme to go south for a few months to “have a baby.”
Theirs is a slow burning, simple but cruel tale with no real climax. All of the family secrets come undone when one day Iris takes Esme to see Kitty in the hospital she’s committed to, and instead of a proper denoument, the story ends abruptly and we are left to wonder exactly what happened between Esme and Kitty while they were alone together and Iris and Alex were outside in the car sharing their own revelation. While I took pleasure in reading the prose in this tragic story, and O’Farrell maintained an elevated level of tension throughout, the ending was unsatisfactory and just a bit too abstract for my full appreciation.
This will not, however, deter me from reading O’Farrell’s more recent work, The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the 2010 Costa novel award, and Instructions For A Heatwave (available February 28, 2013) because I enjoy literary psychological suspense and Maggie O’Farrell is a master.