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The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell

I'm really not sure how to rate this book. On one hand, it led to some fantastic discussions in my book club, and raised some very disturbing questions about society's perception of individuals. On the other hand, the book isn't the best written I've read, which is a real shame.

Let me give you the gist of the story. Iris is a contemporary working girl, with serious relationship issues (in love with her step-brother and involved with a married man...don't ask!) who one day receives notice that her great-aunt is being released from a mental institution into her care. The problem is that Iris has never heard of this great-aunt as her family never even mentioned her. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that the great-aunt is Esme Lennox, who was a bit of a rebel in her youth and was committed to a mental asylum for the sins of wanting to study beyond basic schooling and not wishing to be married. Iris (and the reader) is shocked by the fact that in the early 1900s, women could be incarcerated for life if their father or husband wished it, and they only needed a GP's signature to do so. In Esme's case, the evidence against her is simply her refusal to conform, and her sister's witness given in spite and jealousy.

Such an interesting storyline, so much potential, but none of them are realised. O'Farrell gives her best, but the story just isn't gripping enough. Her description of the inhuman conditions in the asylum are heart-wrenching, but it has been done better in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Sebastian Barry's A Secret Scripture. I will not lie, I was very interested in the book while reading it, but when I finished it my only thought was "Is that it?"

The best thing about the book was the fantastic evening I had with my book club, discussing the moral issues. Esme was normal by modern standards but spent her entire adult life in a cell, while Iris lives a precarious life and doesn't have to face any censure. It made me feel glad I was born in the 20th century.


verity said...

Ooh, how exciting to have had the chance to discuss this. I have really enjoyed Maggie O'Farrells books.

Green Road said...

I'd never actually come across Maggie O'Farrell before, so I'm curious about her previous works. My library has After You'd Gone, I've reserved it!
It was a fantastic discussion, it's the perfect book-club book, if there's such a thing

Anonymous said...

There was a lot to admire in this book, but there did seem to be something missing. Material for a long book tapered for a shorter book maybe. Her earlier, simpler books worked better for me. Do authors feel compelled to write to a particular length I wonder... ?

Green Road said...

fleurfisher, that's it exactly. The book was so sensitive, but then just ended, poof. I think you're right that it would have worked better as a longer book - it lost a certain something in the condensing. I enjoyed it enough to look into her previous works, so all gain :)