Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Gothic Tale

Several of the blurbs on the book jacket of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell use the term “gothic.” After finishing the book, I looked up the word in Wikipedia to find that, with reference to literature, it denotes a combination of both horror and romance. As such, it aptly describes this novel.

There are three main characters – and three voices. The character of the title, Esme, is now in her late 70s. She was confined to a psychiatric hospital by her family when she was 16 and is just now being released because the hospital is closing. Esme’s sister Kitty, who is six years older, suffers from Alzheimer’s and is resident in a nursing home. And then there is Iris, the granddaughter/grandniece of the other two. Iris has been designated the next-of-kin for Esme. With assurances that Esme is non-violent, Iris has taken Esme home with her for the weekend until other arrangements can be made. Iris’ life is further complicated by her relationships with her step-brother Alex and a married lover (part of the romance).

The story rotates among the three women, telling their respective stories in bits and pieces, not always sequentially. I think the author succeeds wonderfully with the voices of Esme and Kitty, less so with Iris'. But then it is really the stories of Esme and Kitty in which we are interested. Why was Esme confined at such a young age? Was her confinement justified? Can we rely on her perceptions? Is she really non-violent? She was locked away for 61 years and abandoned by her family. The descriptions of her treatment and the conditions at the facility are heart-breaking – and horrifying. Kitty’s dialogues seem very disjointed and somewhat non-sensical due to her disease. As children, Kitty and Esme were quite close. Why did Kitty never contact Esme? Does she really suffer from Alzheimer’s or is her mental condition related to something else? What does she mean: “I took it, I took it, and I’ve never told anyone.”?

Kitty and Esme spent their earliest years in India; but with the outbreak of typhoid they return with their parents to Scotland to live in the home of their paternal grandmother. The descriptions of their lives in India, their sea voyage to Scotland, and life with Grandmother are wonderfully written. Kitty is the perfect child and does everything right; Esme is always causing trouble for her family.

Iris arranges to take Esme to see Kitty. I cannot spoil the suspense of what happens at their meeting. You will have to read it for yourself. Perhaps you will understand the ending on first reading. It took me a close re-reading – and it has been haunting me ever since. I think a second reading of the entire book would be even more rewarding.

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