The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie Farrell

Upon discovering that she has a great-aunt who’s been in a mental institution since the age of 16, Iris has to decide how much she’s willing to allow her life to be changed.

I knew as soon as I picked this up that I would absolutely love it, and I was not disappointed. I have an obsession with hysteria and with teenage girls who were locked away in the first half of the 20th Century, and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (available in the UK now, in the US in October 2007) deals with what happens when one such girl is released, 60 years later.

Iris Lockhart owns a second-hand shop and is sleeping with a married man in a life that she’s afraid to admit doesn’t satisfy. She receives an odd piece of correspondence saying that her great-aunt, Euphonia Esme Lennox, is being released into her custody because the institution where she’s spent the last 20 years is closing. Iris is her only living relative; Iris’s father having died and her grandmother, Esme’s sister Kitty, confined to an institution herself with severe Alzheimer’s.

There are three narrators in the story. Esme, Iris, and Kitty, whose fragmented, almost Beckettian first-person internal monologues provide both the mystery and the key to Esme’s “disappearance.” Once Esme went inside, she was never spoken of again, and Iris never knew she existed. Farrell gives each woman a very different voice, and it’s not hard to distinguish between the three despite the lack of conventional transitions.

To Farrell’s further credit, she avoids a common trap of this kind of mystery story, which is creating within Iris a conflict that can only be resolved by learning Esme’s story. Iris has a hole in her life, that is true, but there are no easy catharses here, and the ending feels like a beginning. I applaud Farrell for embracing the ambiguity in crafting a story that’s utterly satisfying without feeling pat.

2 thoughts on “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie Farrell”

  1. I’ve just seen this one and wondered if it would be worth beginning. Now I really must retrieve it from the stacks – you make it sound irresistible.

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