Maggie O'Farrell

The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox

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The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox Summary

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Maggie O’Farrell’s 2006 novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, tackles two difficult issues from British history of the early twentieth century. First are the transplanted children of British colonizers in India, who, sometimes as early as the age of five, would be sent off to boarding school in England without their parents or the native ayahs who had raised them– many of these children were deeply, and permanently, traumatized by this rupture. Second is the long history of psychiatry being used to isolate, drug, and sometimes imprison inconvenient women – those who couldn’t or didn’t conform, those who resisted rigid social rules, those who rebelled against patriarchal authority. In the novel, an elderly woman emerges after sixty years of being held captive in a psychiatric hospital, reluctantly rescued by a great-niece who had never even heard about her existence. A quick warning: the novel does describe sexual violence.

The novel, written out of chronological order in several different time frames, is narrated by several different voices. Often, it is difficult to tell while reading who is speaking and when – things that are only made clear by subsequent chapters or narrators. This effect is used to heighten the secrecy surrounding the central unspoken horror inside the family, the repression at the heart of this secret, and also the increasingly wandering mind of a narrator suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Iris Lockhart is a Scottish vintage clothing store owner in the midst of an unfulfilling relationship with a married man. Out of nowhere, she receives a call from Cauldstone Hospital announcing that the hospital is about to close – and what would she like them to do with her elderly great-aunt who has been held there for sixty years for vague psychiatric reasons? Not only has Iris never heard about this relative, but as far as she knows, the relation is impossible: Iris is the only child of her late father, Robert, who was the only child of her grandmother, Kitty, who is now in the nursing home because of Alzheimer’s.

Expecting a frail, possibly scary mental patient, Iris is shocked that her great-aunt Esme is completely self-composed, if slightly childlike. There are no good places for the seventy-year-old Esme to go, so Iris decides to test out letting Esme live with her. Her decision is cemented when she goes through the hospital’s archives to figure out why her aunt had been committed at the age of sixteen, learning that women were frequently put away for things such as “refusals to speak, unironed clothes, arguments with neighbors, hysteria, unwashed dishes and unswept floors, never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough or not in the right way or seeking them elsewhere.” Esme’s own file is vague, citing as a symptom the decision to keep her hair long and to try on her mother’s dresses.

As Iris acclimates to Esme, and as Esme familiarizes herself with the world she hasn’t seen in over half a century, the novel’s shifting internal monologues reveal the truth about what happened in the family’s past. From this point on, this summary will follow chronology in order to simplify, even though in the novel, the reader is expected to piece events together from hints and clues dropped by reluctant, guilt-ridden, and forgetful speakers.

Esme was the stubborn middle child of her British colonial parents. In India, as punishment one week, her parents took her older sister, Kitty, to a house party, leaving Esme and her baby brother, Hugo, with the servants. Typhoid, a deadly bacterial infection, broke out in the house, and Hugo and his ayah died. The other servants fled, leaving the six-year-old Esme alone with the dead bodies for three days before she was found.

As an adolescent, Esme is bookish and witty, and unwilling to participate in society the way she is expected to as the daughter of wealthy parents. She and Kitty are sent off to Edinburgh to boarding school. The outspoken Esme is tormented by the other girls but deeply enjoys learning. Still, because of her parents’ high-ranking status, she is forced to leave school in her mid-teens to debut in society to find a husband – but at balls, she just reads books and ignores the other people. She also confesses to Kitty that she sometimes sees things that aren’t there. Kitty grows more and more annoyed with Esme’s uncooperative behavior, worried that it is ruining her own chances of marrying well.

Kitty is in love with the most eligible bachelor in town, Jamie Deziel. However, Jamie only has eyes for Esme, which he makes clear in a declaration at a New Year’s ball. When Esme refuses him, Jamie rapes her and goes back to the party. Esme is found in a closet, unable to stop screaming.

This is the last straw for her parents, who accuse her of being drunk and call a psychiatrist. Kitty chimes in that Esme hallucinates, and the family commits her to a lunatic asylum, ostensibly only until Kitty has married. At no point does anyone take Esme seriously when she says that she isn’t mad and has been locked up by mistake. Instead, her unwillingness to “cooperate” is held up as more evidence of her “madness.”

Esme, pregnant from the rape, gives birth in the asylum. During those nine months, Kitty has married and has been unable to conceive. Because the committed Esme legally has no parental rights, her pleas to keep her child are ignored, and Kitty adopts Esme’s baby as her own. Horrified by what she has done, but unwilling to undo it, Kitty does her best to forget that Esme exists.

In the present, after learning all of this, Iris realizes that she is actually Esme’s granddaughter – her father Robert was the baby that Kitty took away from her own sister.

Esme asks to visit Kitty, and when she and Iris get to the nursing home, the completely calm and lucid older woman asks Iris and the nurses, “Please will you leave me alone with my sister.” What happens after that is left entirely ambiguous. Possibly, Esme confronts Kitty with what she has done, and possibly, Esme kills Kitty in revenge. Either way, Kitty is dead after the visit, and the nursing home staff surrounds Esme, trying to pull her away from the room.

The novel ends with Iris refusing to let go of Esme’s hand no matter what.