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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox


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Amazon description:

Set between the 1930s,and the present, Maggie O'Farrell's new novel is the story of Esme, a woman edited out of her family's history, and of the secrets that come to light when, sixty years later, she is released from care, and a young woman, Iris, discovers the great aunt she never knew she had. The mystery that unfolds is the heartbreaking tale of two sisters in colonial India and 1930s Edinburgh - of the loneliness that binds them together and the rivalries that drive them apart, and lead one of them to a shocking betrayal - but above all it is the story of Esme, a fiercely intelligent, unconventional young woman, and of the terrible price she is made to pay for her family's unhappiness. This is vintage Maggie O'Farrell: an impassioned, intense, haunting family drama - a stunning imagining of a life stolen, and reclaimed.

 

I found this novel very engrossing, particularly the flashbacks to Esme in her youth, and the events which led to her incarceration. It deals with similar territory to the film the Magdalene Laundries, tho slightly different in terms of class background. I found the ending initially dissatisfying, but I've been thinking about it since finishing the book and I can see that it made more sense than any alternative.

 

I really liked the style of the book. The writer slips in and out of different time periods very skilfully without ever losing the reader.

 

I'd be interested to see what anyone else thinks.

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The only thing I regret about this book is that I was so engrossed that I couldn't put it down and finished it much too quickly. Actually I do have quibble with the ending which I thought was melodramatic but certainly didn't spoil the book. The charecterisation was superb, especially Iris and as for Esme's story, what can you say? Wonderfully done and had me boiling with indignation on her behalf. I'd reccomend this to anyone.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I enjoyed this book but it was somehow uninvolving. The modern day relationships were superficial, those from the past seemed too firmly stuck in the past. I whizzed through it, it's an easy read, but it didn't leave me with any 'food for thought' and I'm quickly on to the next book.

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I enjoyed this. The author captures well the frustration and fear Esme would be feeling, and the psychological world she inabited. I finished it feeling, though, that there was a lot of questions left unanswered. For example, what was the story about the baby brother Hugo? Also I could see the family 'revelation' coming a mile off! An easy, quick and enjoyable read.

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The author captures well the frustration and fear Esme would be feeling, and the psychological world she inabited. I finished it feeling, though, that there was a lot of questions left unanswered. For example, what was the story about the baby brother Hugo? Also I could see the family 'revelation' coming a mile off! An easy, quick and enjoyable read.

I think all 5 members who attended my book club meeting last night would agree with most of this. However, we all felt that there could have been more about Esme's feeling as she was launched back into the real world. Particularly popular was the narrative voices of the characters, and the fact that although it jumped around a lot chronologically we all followed it easily.

 

I've been recommended to read "After you've gone" though as the 2 O'Farrell fans thought that is much better.

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I read The Vanishing Act of E.L at the weekend. It was quite compelling - it only took me a couple of days. I liked how the story was built both from Esme's and Kitty's recollections - seeing the story from different interpretations. I felt the current day relationships were a bit under-developed and probably not that necessary to the story as whole. Then again, I suppose they were useful as a comparison to the relationships in the 1920/30s. A great ending although I felt it was a bit sudden. I don't think it would have spoilt the story, if the book had been a bit longer.

 

Originally posted by Jen

The modern day relationships were superficial, those from the past seemed too firmly stuck in the past.

 

I agree about the modern relationships, but I think it is appropriate that those of the past seemed stuck in the past - Esme's normal life was effectively stopped when she was sixteen and was institutionalised and not living in what was a rapidly changing world. Kitty's condition normally causes a person to lose their more recent memories but able to recall things that happened further back in their life.

 

I have read two of Maggie O'Farrell's books - After You'd Gone and My Lover's Lover both of which I enjoyed. I have The Distance Between Us sitting on my TBR pile and I think I will be bumping it up on the strength of this book.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was particularly intrigued to find out why Esme had been 'locked away' for 60 years. It was ironic that Kitty ended up with a mental illness and I thought it rather sad, but probably quite realistic, that her ramblings were ignored. I liked the characters but I did think Esme seemed a little too self assured after a lifetime in an institution. I didn't like the ending but it was quite thought provoking. I was completely engrossed in the book and really didn't want it to end.

 

Maggie O'Farrell's style is hauntingly beautiful. I enjoyed this almost as much as After You'd Gone and a lot more then My Lover's Lover.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I really enjoyed this book, read it all yesterday whilst the rain battered the conservatory.

I thought Hugo was explained - he had typhiod. I was shocked about Robert and the final scene inthe hospital, but then I guess if I was locked away for 61 years I'd be pretty peeed off.

I thought the narrative worked really well skipping between voices and generations, although I would have liked to have seen more of their life in India. The mother was very strange, and clearly didn't like Esme before the incident let alone afterwards.

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I finished this last week and absolutely loved it, definitely one of my top books this year. I loved Maggie O'Farrell's writing style, very readable yet not as simple as it first appears. The switching of time periods and narrative voices really worked for me, once I got used to it. I wondered if Esme really did have schizophrenia, as was mentioned, or if she was just a case of out of sight out of mind, like many people who were incarcerated in mental asylums in ye olden

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  • 1 month later...

Back in the sixties I worked in a minor public school which was located opposite a large mental institution, which we knew as "The Colony". The school employed two elderly ladies from 'The Colony' as domestic assistants. These ladies each had a bed-sitting room on the premises, and lived an independent, if sheltered life. Both had been 'put away' as young girls, and had stayed immured in that institution until - well, I don't know what age, but well past any danger of 'getting into trouble'.

 

Because of my memories of Maggie and Lily, I was excited by the possibilities of this book. I was keen to read about the circumstances in which a family had an adolescent daughter 'put away' (Lily had attacked her step-mother with a pair of scissors - I wonder about the story behind that!).

 

To some extent the book fulfilled my hopes. Clearly Esme was too unconventional and undisciplined for her mother to handle, even before her horrible experience with Hugo. Especially given her mother's previous pregnancies and losses. Then trying to fit this traumatised child into the dour Scottish household under the rule of her very conventional grandmother after her free and easy life in India, was going to bring conflict.

Then add sex to that situation, and sibling rivalry - what is a respectable family supposed to do with such a problem child?

 

I was less happy with the 'modern' part of the story. I usually avoid books about the sort of young woman that Iris appears to be, with a free and easy attitude to relationships and sex, but I do see that this is included to highlight the differences in attitude between then and now. Iris would certainly have been locked away for moral turpitude at a very young age in a previous generation. I think I would have preferred a more subtle contrast though.

 

I figured out the family relationships quite quickly, in spite of Esme not remembering her early days in Cauldstone until late in the narrative.

 

I don't know how I wanted the story to end, but it wasn't like that. It called into question our doubts about Esme's incarceration in the first place, and I wanted her to make a new life outside.

 

No drama in that though! :rolleyes:

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  • 2 months later...

Thoughts resulting from my latest RW book group discussion -

--------------------------------------------------------------

 

It was once possible to commit difficult, rebellious and unconventional women to the asylum with only a GP’s signature. Not way back in the distant past either. This was Britain and it was practice until the 1950’s. The women, thus interred, were released only when the institutions closed down in the 1990’s. Regrettable social history which Maggie O’Farrell uses to great effect in her 4th novel. (Her 1st written by the way – she spent 10 years perfecting it!)

 

Esme is institutionalised in the 1930’s for …. no, for that would be giving it away …. is released in the 1990’s when her asylum is closed. A series of (un)fortunate events brings her to the home of her grandniece, Iris; a businesswoman with a complicated love life; a woman who, had she lived in Esme’s time would without a shadow of a doubt have met the same fate. Iris’s story isn’t the fascinating one, however, and, at times, the contrast between her opportunities and Esme’s is just too obvious. The real strength of the novel lies in the layers of Esme’s story which gradually unfolds through the narrative voices of both Esme and her sister, Kitty. Kitty, now suffering from advanced Alzheimers, can’t remember what she had for her last meal, although she does remember, with startling clarity, the events of 60 years ago, which led her to betray her sister …. The secrets are revealed, slowly but surely, in Kitty’s fractured and disjointed voice, although she only tells us the details which portray her in a light softer than harsh reality …. Esme provides the bitter detail.

 

And yet I found myself wondering whether Esme’s narration too is unreliable – not in a way which detracts from the injustice served her, but enough to wonder whether she really did have bipolar tendencies, which would have been recognised and treated in a different age. There are enough dubious incidents throughout her childhood to merit the question. Her surprising self-possession and focus upon release are also quite disturbing. Evidence of a real problem or a self-fulfilling prophecy?

 

There’s no doubt that Maggie O’Farrell has written a powerful, outrage-inspiring and disturbing book. Esme’s stolen life is upsetting. So too, the society of the 1930’s. As is the cavalier attitude of the 1990’s social services. These threads of outrage and sadness run throughout the novel, from the first page to the last. And that ending achieves something I would have thought impossible. It’s poignant and manages to upset me even more than before!

 

This is an excellent book group read. It’s not often that a page-turner inspires such a wealth of discussion. My group members also related the stories of those they knew who had been similarly affected by these draconian social policies. (And not all the victims were female ….) A number of group members took the book away for a reread. Now that they know what happens, they want to reread and savour …. which is as good as recommendation as there can be and an endorsement that O’Farrell’s 10 years were years well-spent!

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  • 2 weeks later...

I just finished reading this book yesterday and I really enjoyed it. I found it to be an interesting story that was told in an unusual way. I thought Esme and Kitty's story was very sad and quite disturbing, but didn't like the modern Iris/Alex story quite as much but it worked well to show the huge contrasts between women today and women in Esme's day. Esme would have made a very good woman of today but her behaviour just didn't fit well with her time. I did wonder a bit about the reality of the tale - surely Esme wouldn't have been kept in such an institution in these modern days.

 

 

The whole story of 'the baby' unfolded well I think (though I guessed before it was made obvious). I found the bit of the story about the green blanket most poignant. Kitty must have lived with an enormous guilt through her life and her ramblings seem to show this manifesting itself. I didn't like the ending as I would have liked it to end happily but I was glad that Iris worked out the baby bit.

 

 

I'd previously read 'After You'd Gone' but I enjoyed this book more - possibly because I like historical fiction.

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Hi, pb - I didn't welcome you on the other thread.

Glad you enjoyed this, as I did.

I thought that it was quite plausible that Esme was still institutionalised. As Lizzy said, O'Farrell had been writing this book for about ten years, so it covered the period where the institutions were being closed down and the patients released into the care of the community - or lack of it. I thought the really shocking thing was that she would be released to a terrible hostel and this was thought to be better than staying in proper care. It made me want to read more about this topic. I watched the Magdalene Laundries, which covered similar ground.

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paddingtonbear, I have hidden part of your post behind 'spoiler' tags, as some readers might look through the thread before reading, or finishing the book, and may not have worked out the bit of the plot you had mentioned.

 

We do like to retain a book's mystery for the benefit of future readers, so frequently hide bits of our posts in this way. To do so, type

before the text you want to hide, and afterwards type it again, with the addition of / after the first [

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  • 1 month later...

What a powerful book. O'Farrell's deceptively simple style is perfect for narrating a shocking story like this which needs no stylistic embellishment. The way in which unruly young women were incarcerated for life in the past is potently brought to life by O'Farrell's use of the present tense and her way of conjuring up family life, which effortlessly transports the reader to the past. There are many themes covered subtly here as well as the horrific one of forced institutionalization and the cruelty that went on in psychiatric hospitals. The close bonds between siblings which can switch in an eye blink to jealousy, the existence of favouritism in families, the stultifying conventionalism of the past, the horror, shame and secrecy surrounding

rape in those days

. It made me shudder and engrossed me totally.

 

O'Farrell writes in a haunting, lilting style, bringing to life colours, textures and smells as well as emotions and events. Reading her is a very rich sensory experience despite the ostensible simplicity of her style. It's as if you're immersed in the places, times and people she's describing, seeing everything first hand. An excellent book. ****0 1/2

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