Maggie O’Farrell’s novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is the story of sisters Euphemia (Esme) and Kitty and while the novel’s first line announces that the story begins “with two girls at a dance”, the story really begins in India, where Kitty and Esme live with their parents. There, one hot afternoon, Esme, aged four and a half, recalls an insect getting caught in her ear and letting “out another piercing shriek.” She staggers around the lawn until the insect crawls out of her ear. “Could this be her earliest memory?” she wonders. “It might be. A beginning of sorts – the only one she remembers.”
This is also the story of Iris, Kitty’s granddaughter, owner of a small vintage clothing store, and half-heartedly involved with a married man.
The narrative jumps around a lot: present day, India, Edinburgh in the 1930s after Esme and Kitty and their parents return from India. To confuse matters even more, Kitty now suffers from dementia and her fragmented thoughts are part of O’Farrell’s narrative. If it sounds complicated, it’s actually not.
The main part of the story is Esme’s. The psychiatric hospital where she has spent the last sixty years of her life is closing and she needs to be moved. Kitty clearly can’t care for her – she’s in a nursing home herself. It falls to Iris to look after a woman she’s never met and knows nothing about. When Iris finally meets her great aunt, she seems quite sane.
Iris had, she realises, been expecting someone frail or infirm, a tiny geriatric, a witch from a fairy tale. But this woman is tall, with an angular face and searching eyes. She has an air of slight hauteur, the expression arch, the eyebrows raised.
Esme is a fascinating character and her story is both heartbreaking and compelling. She is a victim of the time, of family tragedy and the will of others, yet she remains somehow sane. She wanted an education, but her parents wanted her to make a good marriage. The circumstances of her incarceration are revealed to the reader through the novel’s layered narrative and it’s more than enough to keep you turning the pages.
However, I do feel there was more to be said. I was particularly drawn to Iris’s story and her relationship with her brother, Alex, and that felt (in some ways) like another book entirely. Some people probably won’t like the way The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox finishes, but I didn’t mind how it ended. I think my overall reaction to the book was that it was lightweight despite the novel’s more serious themes. Easy to read, sad, but somehow sort of superficial.