Last year we went to a holiday house in Donegal. There, on the shelves, I found a copy of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, about an unconventional woman wrongly put into an institution which is about to close, harbouring secrets of the past that will ultimately change the lives of all involved. It was a wonderful, heartbreaking book.
This year, we went to another holiday home in Donegal and I happened to bring The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a novel about an unconventional woman wrongly put into an institution which is about to close, harbouring secrets of the past that will ultimately change the lives of all involved.
There must be a pattern here because this was also a wonderful, heartbreaking book.
How do we define sanity? That is the question at the heart of this elegant, spare and ultimately horrifying novel.
Esme Lennox has been in a mental institution, forgotten and silent, for 60 years. The hospital is about to close and her niece Iris, is charged with her care. Esme has been wiped from the family history. Iris did not even know she existed such was her expunging. Iris cannot even ask her remaining relative, her grandmother Kitty, about this sister as Kitty is lost to a fog of Alzheimer’s.
Through Esme’s memories, we learn that she was a headstrong girl, living in India with her family in the 1930s. She is found during a cholera epidemic in their empty house, clutching the body of her dead baby brother and from here on, her problems begin. Taken back to Scotland, her behaviour is seen as odd. She reads books at parties, is caught dancing in her mother’s dress and wants to stay on at school. Not things expected from the daughter of a highly respected family. Another traumatic incident at a New Year’s Eve party seals Esme’s fate. A doctor is called, her beloved sister Kitty mentions a hallucination Esme had and she is committed. Unvisited and intentionally forgotten for 60 years.
Is it possible that this kind of thing would really have happened? It seems unbelievable but at the same time, all too real. One signature was all that was needed and difficult family members (often women) were gone. Iris reads the admissions records of the institution that has been housing Esme for most of her life and finds,
A Cockenzie fishwife who showed signs of libidinous behaviour. A youngest daughter who eloped to Ireland with a legal clerk….Jane, who had the temerity to take long solitary walks and refuse offers of marriage
So, that covers any woman who deviates from society’s norms. Esme’s own admissions record shows how little it could take to have your life pulled from under you,
Aged sixteen….Insists on keeping hair long….Parents report finding her dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother’s clothes
O’Farrell deftly reveals the tragic story through the voices of these three women, Iris, Kitty and Esme. With a subtlety and delicacy, she teases out the knots of the past and ironically, it is through Kitty’s masterful confused and fractured stream of consciousness, her brain addled by dementia, that the truth is revealed to us. The reader is being challenged to decide who is actually mad and who is sane, Kitty or Esme and their story is so beautifully told, that sometimes the present day plot of Iris and her love for her step brother is a distraction. But Iris is the one who is filling in the gaps, finding sound in the silence of Esme’s life and coming to realise the truth at the heart of her family.
And what a terrible truth it is. The character of Esme is wonderfully feminist – not understanding why she is expected to care about clothes, unconcerned about marriage, with dreams of continuing her education.
Her grandmother keeps announcing that Esme will never find a husband if she doesn’t change her ways. Yesterday, when she said it at breakfast, Esme replied “Good” and was sent to finish her meal in the kitchen.
She is headstrong, intelligent and nonconformist. She recognises herself in Iris, who owns her own business, refuses to marry and is engaged in several affairs, one with her step-brother. The contrast between the depiction of the young Esme, so full of life and spirit with the same woman 60 years later is heartbreaking.
She shuts her mouth, closes her throat, folds her hands over each other and she does the thing she has perfected. Her speciality. To absent yourself, to make yourself vanish
It takes Iris to finally see Esme; with no past judgements to go on they become tentative friends. Esme sees a lot of herself in Iris and Iris in turn recognises her own traits in her great-aunt. As Esme notes,
We are all….. just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents
The book is beautifully written. Birds pass ‘through trees like needles through fabric’; wearing an ill-fitting dress is ‘like being in a three legged race with someone you didn’t like’, but also has the pace and plotting of a psychological thriller (it is impossible to put down).
I don’t want to reveal the outcome of the novel, suffice to say, I cried solidly through the last 100 pages, shocked by the hypocrisy, cruelty and almost Gothic horror of Edwardian propriety. The final passages of this beautiful book encapsulate all the disloyalty, suffering and painful love that has gone before as these three very different women, Esme, Iris and Kitty come to realise what they have done and what has been done to them and a stolen life is reclaimed.
She moves towards her sister’s chair. She looks at Kitty for a moment, then reaches out and touches her hair, as if to smooth it in to place. She puts her hand to the silver blue waves at Kitty’s temple and holds it there. It is a strange gesture and lasts only for a moment. Then she removes it and says to the air around her, ‘I would like to be left alone with my sister please.
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