This book details the amazing and terrifying ease with which women were sent off to mental institutions in the past; how their ‘madness’, and therefore fate, could be decided upon with such little evidence and how this method was often used by husbands and fathers to easily dispose of women. I thought the story itself was a brilliant idea; that Iris receives a letter saying that she is designated as being responsible for the care of her relative, Esme, on her release from a mental institution and yet her family have never spoken of Esme and Iris knows nothing about her. Iris at first grudgingly tries to help Esme, then becomes interested in her character and her story and horrified at the fact that she has been locked up for all this time, about 60 years. The book tells the story from Iris’ and Esme’s point of view and also from the point of view of Esme’s sister, Kitty, who has Alzeimher’s.

I was left with a feeling of terrible sadness and absolute disbelief that people like Esme were locked up for such a long time on so little evidence and were basically forgotten about with their whole lives wasted and lost, and that this actually happened in real life not just in fiction.

The book reads very well as I wanted to find out what happened to her, why she was put away, and find out more about her family who could do such a thing and so completely erase her from their lives.

The characters in the book stayed with me and were very believable. Esme’s character was fascinating; the traumas that she went through as a child and young woman and through which she had no support from her family, she then tried to deal with them herself, first by trying to speak about her feelings and then by escaping into a silent world punctuated by the need to let it all out by sudden screaming – all perfectly understandable considering what she’d been through, but her family were determined to despise and punish her for these two methods of dealing with her trauma and seemed to grab the first opportunity they had for pushing her out of their lives by admitting her to a mental institution. I wondered if Esme’s mother was suffering from mental distress, which would be totally understandable after suffering the death of a child, but if so this didn’t seem to enable her to empathise or understand what her daughter was going through. Kitty’s character also fascinated me and I found I kept going back through the book to re-read Kitty’s thoughts and realised that what I’d first taken as incoherent ramblings actually held quite important clues to Kitty’s involvement in Esme being taken away – I thought this was extremely clever by the author; to hide valuable information within the seemingly nonsense ramblings of an old ill woman. I also admired the accurate way the author transcribes Kitty’s thoughts, as she suffers from Alzeimher’s and her thoughts often begin mid-sentence and then break off to be then followed by another mid-sentence thought. Again, this is heartbreaking to consider how distressing this must be for sufferers and their families.

I was shocked by the ending and didn’t anticipate it, and was left with uncertainty as to how much Esme actually knew about what and who had caused her to be sent away, I was also left with the feeling that I immediately wanted to go back and read the book again – a sign of a great book. I am full of admiration and praise for this book, and could envisage it being adapted to a great and slightly chilling film. I found this a very impressive, gripping and intriguing book and definitely plan to read more Maggie O’Farrell.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (Paperback)

By (author): Maggie O'Farrell

Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
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