Maggie O'Farrell,
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
(Harcourt, 2007)

There was a time when an obstreperous, inconvenient or unwanted woman could be committed to an asylum whether or not she was mentally ill -- and often, she was not. Such a woman is Esme Lennox. Committed to Cauldstone Hospital at the age of 16, Esme has spent 60 years behind its walls. Now, Cauldstone is closing and its inmates must go elsewhere.

The first Iris Lockhart hears about Esme Lennox is when Cauldstone contacts her as next of kin: Esme is apparently her grandmother's sister -- though Kathleen (Kitty) Lockhart has never spoken of a sister. Nor, when Iris asks, can she get a straight answer out of her grandmother, herself in a nursing home due to Alzheimer's. Despite the advice of her married lover and her stepbrother, Iris does take Esme from the hospital, intending, at first, only to drop her at a hostel until other arrangements can be made. But upon reaching the hostel, Iris finds she cannot leave Esme in that situation and takes her home, to the very house Esme lived in before her committal.

This is a novel about secrets. Esme has secrets, Iris has secrets, Kathleen/Kitty has secrets. As the novel unfolds, told from all three womens' points of view, the reader slowly learns the secrets and how they contributed to keeping a traumatized but headstrong girl locked up for 60 years.

If the novel has any flaw, it's the author's choice to use the third-person present tense to tell her story. While this gives the narrative an immediacy it might not otherwise have, it might be a distraction for a reader expecting a more traditional voice. The story, however, is more than compelling enough to overcome any flaws.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a gorgeous novel and highly recommended.

review by
Laurie Thayer

12 July 2008

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