Iris is contacted out of the blue about a sister of her grandmother who has been in a mental health institution for sixty years. The institution is closing down and Esme must find a place in the community. The problem is that no one in the family knew about this sister, no one knows why she was admitted in the first place and Esme’s sister is lost in dementia. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell is a book about the lost people, usually women, who were condemned to a lifetime in homes because they were embarrassing to their families or had some sort of disability.
The story is told in impressions and brief memories by Esme, Iris and Kitty (Esme’s sister). It is not a straightforward narrative and you have to piece together what has happened yourself from snippets offered to you. You gain a picture of what Esme was like as a child and you understand that she probably had some form of autism or ADHD although there is never an official diagnosis. You only get glimpses into what life was like in the institution although these are enough to convey the horror of the existence. You never really grasp exactly what happened when Esme’s brother died or what Kitty’s marriage was like but you see enough to begin to understand what happened and why people behaved as they did.
This book is quite short but there is a lot in it, told in these memory fragments and odd comments. I liked the way that this was told but might have preferred a bit more information about some events. I do think that this is an effective way to tell a story about people who are losing memories and I liked the way that the reader is asked to build up the picture for themselves rather than have everything laid out for them.
I found the bits about Iris and her love life to be less compelling and I didn’t feel that this really fitted well with the story concerning Esme. I found Iris not to be a particularly attractive character – she seems impetuous and works from emotions rather than logic.
The end of this book is jarring and I didn’t expect it. Because the book ends suddenly you are left trying to review what you thought about Esme in the past and maybe reconsidering her whole situation. It is effective and clever.
I thought that this book was well done and engaging. I liked the writing style and the subject matter is important. It is a short book, set over a couple of days, and has a real impact.