The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell

Let us begin with two girls at a dance.

They are at the edge of the room.  One sits on a chair, opening and shutting a dance-card with gloved fingers.  The other stands beside her, watching the dance unfold: the circling couples, the clasped hands, the drumming shoes, the whirling skirts, the bounce of the floor.  It is the last hour of the year and the windows behind them are blank with night.  The seated girl is dressed in something pale, Esme forgets what, the other in a dark red frock that doesn’t suit her.  She has lost her gloves.  It begins here.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is all about a woman called Iris who owns a vintage clothing store and represses feelings for her step-brother, who inherits a crazy old great-aunt she never knew she had when the mental health institution where she has been housed for sixty years closes down.  The story is told from Iris’s point of view, and Esme’s memories of her life before, and the disordered memories of Esme’s sister Kitty (Iris’s grandmother), who now suffers from Alzheimer’s.

This book was really good.  Really, really good.  I liked it so much.  I’ve read reviews that said that Iris’s part of the story wasn’t fleshed out enough, but I thought it worked really well actually – the juxtaposition between Esme, who is institutionalized for being inconveniently unwilling to adhere to the standards required of a woman of her time and class; and Iris, who, like Esme, doesn’t want the marriage thing but lives in a time when she can be a professional woman and that’s what she chooses.

As the book goes on, it carefully, carefully starts to explain why Esme’s family had her committed to a mental institution, and why her sister Kitty pretended to her family all her life that she was an only child.  It’s not a very nice story, but it’s a good story.

Good partly, of course, because it’s true – when Iris is researching to find out why Esme was committed in the first place, she finds records of women and girls who were put in mental institutions by their families for things like not wanting to have their hair cut, taking long walks, refusing marriage.  That happened.  It’s upsetting, and it doesn’t pull any punches – if you were in a place with people who were crazy, and everyone was constantly telling you that you were crazy, you’d have a hard time hanging onto your sanity.

So, read it!  It was really good!  The end was ambiguous!  Fantastic title!

7 thoughts on “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell

  1. *adds to wishlist* I will read it.

    “She finds records of women and girls who were put in mental institutions by their families for things like not wanting to have their hair cut, taking long walks, refusing marriage.”

    Gah. This kind of stuff upsets me so much.

  2. Me too. It makes me want to read more books that deal with this issue – not nonfiction, I think I’d find it too upsetting and immediate right now, but I’d like to read more fiction like this.

    Gotta love a book that makes you say “I want more exactly like this!”

  3. Hey
    I really loved this book, in fact im studying it for year 12 English. Im wondering if you know of any other books which are connected to ‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’, in any way?
    Thank you very much,

  4. Saskia, I know Maggie O’Farrell has written several other books. Apart from that, I just wish I knew of more books that deal with this theme. Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith does deal a little bit with madhouses, though in an earlier era – Victorians. What other books do you like?

  5. Hello Jenny,
    That’s alright I can also connect the book to a movie, if I can’t find anything else. Thank you for your suggestion though. Other books I like? I really enjoyed Agatha Christie for a while, and I’m reading the ‘Memory Keepers Daughter’ by Kim Edwards at the moment, which I have liked so far. One other book I loved is the ‘Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak.

  6. If you like mysteries, have you ever read anything by Elizabeth Peters? She writes a really fun series of mysteries set in Egypt at the end of the 19th century. The first one’s Crocodile on the Sandbank – love them!

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