‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’

This book is quite simply a hidden gem! It was highly recommended by a friend, who had herself read it in one sitting and I soon found myself following suit. I physically could not put it down!

‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’ by Maggie O’Farrell tells the tale of Esme Lennox who was committed to a mental institution at the age of sixteen. Over sixty years later (because the institution is closing down), she leaves Cauldstone Institution and meets her grand-niece Iris. Nobody visited her in Cauldstone, not even her family. She quite literally vanished into history until Iris arrives unexpectedly and helps her reclaim her life in a completely different era, unrestricted by class hierachy.

The book switches between the 1930s when Esme was committed, to the 1990s when she meets Iris and also interjects moments of Kitty Lennox’s fractured memories. Kitty, Esme’s sister has Alzheimer’s and subsequently, her narrative is disjointed and reveals intriguing details that she remembers very clearly, as if not even Alzheimer’s can make her forget poignant moments of the past…although she remembers the events in a more idealized, self-less way…

As the novel unfolds, we begin to piece together the fragmented narratives, become completely engrossed in the tale and find ourselves desperate to find out why Esme was erased from history. Whilst reading the sections depicting Esme’s ‘uncontrollable actions’, I couldn’t help feeling that had I grown up in Esme’s day, trapped by the rigidity of the class system and her parent’s desperation to keep face; I too would probably have been committed…

The novel reveals a lot about human nature and just when you think that you’ve figured the plot out, Kitty’s ramblings throw a spanner into the works. This book is brilliant. It makes you feel somewhat like a historian yourself, unpicking the details and piecing together evidence from a variety of sources. It also encourages a great sense of relief that the times have changed.

‘The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox’ is a beautifully written, heart-achingly devastating, haunting novel, which I absolutely loved! I just wish I’d discovered it sooner! I’m definitely going to look out for more of O’Farrell’s novels on my next Waterstones visit!