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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell


This is the fourth novel by Maggie O'Farrell, but only the third that I've read. Copies of her debut title, After You'd Gone, are available in the county to borrow; her second title, My Lover's Lover, is available upon request from outside the county, which is how I read it. I've read her first two novels and I recommend them. O'Farrell's most recent novel is The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and it is a complex, tragic tale of the dynamics of family, love, trust and betrayal in 1930's Britain.

The novel switches off among three perspectives: Iris's point of view in present time, Esme's point of view that fluidly moves between her recollections of the past and her perception of the present, and Esme's sister Kitty's point of view that offers extremely disjointed recollections filtered through the fog of the Alzheimer's disease from which she suffers. Each perspective has a subtley distinct voice as each character narrates the story of a shared family history, a picture is slowly revealed of how the Lennox sisters' history effects the life and interactions of the granddaughter, Iris. It becomes clear that through familial dysfunction that lead to tragedy has forever shaped and continues to shape this family's path.

Iris has spent her entire life under the impression that her grandmother, Kitty, was an only child. Then she is contacted by Cauldstone, a psychiatric institution that's in the process of shutting down, regarding arrangements for Kitty's sister, Esme, who has been institutionalized for over sixty years and whose very existence has been thoroughly erased from the family. At a loss as to what to do with the great-aunt she never knew she had, Iris cannot ask her father to shed light on this mystery since he is long dead, and her grandmother, Kitty, cannot tell her how Esme came to be instutionalized and exiled from the family because Kitty is deep in the mires of Alzheimer's.

As the story of the two sisters emerges, one wonders: was Esme truly mentally ill or was she institutionalized because she did not fit society's strictly prescribed, oppressive role for a woman in the early twentieth century? What are the effects of a lifetime of institutionalization on an otherwise healthy and sound of mind woman?

This heart wrenching account from both Esme's and Kitty's points of view, of the mental institution, of Esme's treatment there and by her family. A vicious, vindictive betrayal cuts all the more deeply and sharply for the very fact that it was committed by the one person Esme loved and trusted most: her sister. You won't be able to put this book down until the final, devastating page is read and finally all secrets are revealed.

I recommend you read this book; check it out the next time you visit the library--it is available upon request from Annville Free Library, Lebanon Community Library, and Richland Community Library.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

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