The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Written by Maggie O'Farrell
Review by Mary Sharratt

Iris Lockhart is a stubbornly independent young woman in modern Edinburgh. Her only real connections with the past are Kitty, her Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother, and the beautiful vintage clothes she sells in her boutique. Out of the blue, she receives a phone call from a mental hospital, which is about to close down and must re-house all its inmates. Iris is asked whether she is willing to take on Esme Lennox, the great aunt she never knew existed. Esme is Kitty’s sister, yet Kitty had always insisted she was an only child. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the story of Esme, a spirited woman, much like Iris, except that she had the misfortune to be born in a place and time that labelled her rebellious streak as madness. After a troubled childhood in colonial India and 1930s Edinburgh, Esme was incarcerated in a mental institution at the age of 16 and erased from her family history. By the time Iris discovers Esme’s existence, she has been in the asylum for 60 years.

Iris is torn between her reluctance of taking on a mad and possibly dangerous old woman and her curiosity. Compassion overrides caution when she learns that in the 1930s, a G.P.’s signature sufficed for a father or a husband to have a woman committed for life. O’Farrell poignantly describes the growing bond that forms between Iris and Esme as Esme gathers her courage for her inevitable reunion with Kitty, who has betrayed her in the most unspeakable way.

Dark and disturbing, this cautionary tale is not for the faint-hearted. But this gorgeously written novel is subtle and elegantly drawn: a masterpiece.