It takes a lot for a book to make me exclaim out loud or visibly widen my eyes in shock. Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) managed it several times.
The novel divides itself between several narrative threads, collectively spanning modern Edinburgh, colonial India and a stifled, early twentieth century Scottish culture of Hogmanay balls and mental asylums. These backdrops come together when Iris Lockhart receives a letter from a local psychiatric unit, informing her that Esme Lennox, her hitherto-unknown great aunt, is to be discharged, and is now Iris’s responsibility. Iris has enough on her plate, with a shop to run, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s to visit and a complicated love life to resolve, but in the space of a few days finds herself learning about a very different side to her family.
I found myself re-reading the last ten pages
O’Farrell does not offer a clear structure – indeed Vanishing Act contains no actual chapters, just a series of page breaks to mark a shift in perspective within the third-person narration. She drip-feeds us information, throwing in one-liners or snatches of sentence that mean one thing at first but, when they take on a different context, adopt a totally different significance. Towards the end, revelations come thick and fast; I found myself re-reading the last ten pages because I felt I’d lost track of exactly what happened. Nevertheless, the story is compelling and seeks to catch you out, taking you by the hand and leading you down one path before revealing that nothing is as you assumed.
A very real insight into the female struggle for survival
The characters offer a clear contrast between past and present – Iris, with her cropped hair, independent business and liberal sexuality is entirely at odds with the rigorously formal, controlled life that Esme and her sister Kitty lived as young women, in a society where ‘hysteria’ was an adequate excuse to imprison any woman who was out of order. As Iris discovers, ‘a man used to be able to admit his daughter or wife to an asylum with just a signature from a GP’. It’s a very real insight into the female struggle for survival in a world that was constantly against women: where wanting an education beyond sixteen was unacceptable, where childish behaviour implied insanity, where sex was such a taboo that newlywed women found themselves lying in their marriage beds, not certain what was about to happen, only that it was inevitable and would probably hurt.
O’Farrell flits effortlessly between different strands of the narrative, offering us little glimpses into the lives of two children in 1980s Edinburgh, a pair of sisters in colonial India, a woman who has been in a mental institution for sixty years and counting. Every scene offers something new, a moment of insight we hadn’t anticipated, an innocent encounter that becomes something more sinister, a throwaway comment that has a much more meaningful significance.
A real page-turner, a book you can binge-read
In the wake of exams, Vanishing Act is a real page-turner, a book you can binge-read over the course of a day or two. With clear characterisation and a set of engagingly opposed backdrops, Maggie O’Farrell produces a clever, satisfying read with twists and turns no reader can predict.
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