Iris Lockhart is comfortable and confident in her skin: single,
successful, and somewhat self-absorbed in her fashion business, her affair with
a married man, and her sexually ambiguous relationship with her stepbrother. But
something opens up in her when she flips through the admissions book of
Cauldstone, a psychiatric hospital for women. Iris is appalled when she reads
the entries for women committed in the 1930s at the same time as her great-aunt
Esme, entries that testify "of refusals to speak, of unironed clothes, of
arguments with neighbors, of hysteria, of unwashed dishes and unswept floors, of
never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough or not in
the right way or seeking them elsewhere." Behavior that Iris considers modern
would have gotten her institutionalized not so very long ago, and the novel
makes much of this point by contrasting Iris's contemporary lifestyle with
flashbacks to her great-aunt's girlhood in colonial India and Edinburgh. Her
great-aunt's plight draws Iris out of herself and deep into her family's
history. As she struggles with how to care for Esme, Iris begins to discover the
twin tragedies that bookended Esme's life before Cauldstone and the family
secrets that redeem her unspeakably tragic incarceration.
The virtue of this book is its absorbing, suspenseful narration. The reader joins Iris on a kind of detective hunt for her family's true story, and O'Farrell masterfully times the clues to both gratify the hunger for answers and extend the mystery even further. Yet the book's downfall is how thoroughly it sacrifices character development to the rhythms of its engrossing plot. The book dips into the heads of its female protagonists—Iris, Esme, and Esme's sister Kitty—but all three remain stock characters without true interiority. Their thoughts and actions are calculated not to reveal how women in their situation might feel but, rather, to reveal the pieces of the puzzle with deft narrative control. This is a serious flaw in a work that aims to pierce the stereotype of the hysterical woman. Because of course it turns out that Esme was never insane, merely uncategorizable by the constricting definitions of Edwardian femininity. Uninterested in parties and men, fascinated by the sensual details of the natural world, Esme is like an artist without a medium of expression. By failing to delineate her further, O'Farrell has missed an opportunity to portray the underside of patriarchy, the inner consciousness or never fully quenched resistance of the silenced woman.
The English and Scottish reviews of this book (it was published in August 2006 in the UK) heralded The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox as O'Farrell's best to date and a worthy fulfillment of the promise that she evinced in her first novel, After You'd Gone. Many laud the author for her brave decision to depart from her earlier, more overblown style in favor of something leaner; perhaps this accounts for the novel's curious reluctance to probe its characters' psyches with greater depth. The most frequently used adjective to describe the story is "haunting," as if Iris and Esme are not flesh and blood but shades who linger in the mind despite their ghostly outlines.
From first word to last, this is good, old-fashioned storytelling. Read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox to vanish into an intense, gothic world of women too entirely present for their own good.
This review was originally published in October 2007, and has been updated for the June 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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