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Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (2007)

The much lauded novel by the British author Maggie O’Farrell now lives in Edinburgh. She was a recent guest on BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs – if you missed it you still have the chance to listen to the programme online BBC Radio 4 – Desert Island Discs, Maggie O’Farrell, writer. This review by a Library member draws parallels between fictional and real life examples of ‘madness’.

For me, the publication provides a very sad history but also intriguing insight into everyday social life of that time.

In the beginning I was momentarily confused by the moving between voices, but became subsumed into the lives of the mesmerisingly disunited family.

Esme spends a lifetime locked away in an institution, an asylum (place of safety/prison) and it is the discovery of her existence by her great niece that sets in train the slow unravelling of her history and its ramifications.

‘Difficult’ people were conveniently hidden away in such places – the Royal ‘mad’ cousins and Angus McPhee, Outsider artist, come to mind, with the former spending 60 plus and the latter 50 plus years in mental institutions. At least Esme was not declared dead unlike Katherine and Nerissa.

A strong vein of societal misogyny runs through The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox right up to the present day. Plus ça change . . .

I may have cheered a wee inner cheer at the denouement, but wouldn’t dream of doing a spoiler. Maggie O’Farrell is a genius at drawing you into another world so much that the real world ceases to exist. Even the dog went hungry.

Review by Library member