O’Farrell, Maggie. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
New York: Harcourt, 2006
Blackstone Audiobooks, narrated by Anne Flosnik
This novel is about family stories–in this case, the truths that don’t get told and the lies that spring up to fill the void–and how those stories reverberate through generations.
Iris Lockhart is a 30-something woman busy managing her vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh, juggling a tense relationship with her stepbrother Alex, and trying to sidestep the increasing demands of her latest married lover. Besides Alex, Iris’s only family is her paternal grandmother, Kitty, who is in the clutches of advancing Alzheimer’s disease.
Then one day Iris receives a shocking phone call: A nearby mental institution is closing, and Iris must make arrangements for her great aunt Esme, Kitty’s sister, whom Iris has never heard of. Kitty always claimed to be an only child. However, the institution’s paperwork proves that Esme is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see a hint of her dead father’s face in Esme’s.
Iris agrees to take Esme to a residence home arranged by the institution but finds the home too appalling to leave Esme there. Iris therefore has no choice but to take Esme home for the weekend with her, to an apartment carved out of the family home in which Esme had lived before being sent to the institution more than 60 years ago, at age 16. As Esme caresses the doorknobs and looks into the well-remembered rooms, Iris tries to question her about the past.
Although the novel is short, it is not an easy read, either emotionally or stylistically. The narrative structure skips among three kinds of narration:
- the straightforward third-person narration of Iris’s life
- the convoluted, often naive meanderings of Esme’s schizophrenic memories and thoughts
- the even more disjointed and bitter memories of Kitty’s dementia
Understanding this novel requires an attentive reader able to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
In a sudden flash of insight Iris puts all the pieces together in the book’s abrupt, dramatic climax. I would have liked to see a bit of dénouement about how Iris’s new knowledge will affect her life. Nonetheless, the novel richly repays the reader’s investment of time and effort.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox would be a good book group choice, since all readers will have their own individual take on the many themes this novel raises: truth, the subjugation of women, racial and gender stereotypes, colonialism, social propriety, the meaning of love and of family, parenting, and the treatment of mental illness.
© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown