Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Maggie O’Farrell and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Maggie O’Farrel’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is also a book club pick, but oh, what a pick! I remember somewhere reading a review; I might never have picked this book up if I hadn’t needed to read it for the club. And oh, what I might have missed!


It’s like the scariest book ever written, scary in a Margaret Atwood kind of way, a reminder that women have not had rights for very long, and that those rights are still very fragile. When economies go bottoms-up, when unemployment begins rising, women are often the first to suffer, and women’s rights the first to go. In hard times, men will be preferred hirings, because they have families to support, laws to “protect” women are passed, especially laws which “protect” her finances, meaning gives the power of the money management to some man to do for her, or “protect” her person by requiring that some man accompany her to keep her from dangers. Protection = control. It keeps some smart, thinking women submissive to men who are in every way their inferior.

In Vanishing, Maggie O’Farrel writes of such a woman, Esme Lennox, who is a fey spirit, born in India, with the eyes of an artist. While her “good” sister Kitty obeys the rules, walks the straight and narrow path, Esme is messier. As she grows to adolescence, her eccentricity and her rebellion against the constricts of the life in turn-of-the-century Scotland chafe, she yearns for more room to breathe, intellectually, socially, as her family, her community and her society continues to pressure her to conform.

One of the key events in the book is the death of Esme’s baby brother, of typhoid fever. Abandoned, Esme sits holding her dead brother’s body for three days until her family returns (the baby-keeper also died and the other employees deserted while Esme’s family was away). Esme is devastated, but the focus is on her mother, who is wrought with guilt and isolates herself, and Esme, only a little girl, is forbidden to even say her beloved baby brother’s name. Part of what plays a huge role in this book is society, expectations, and all that is hidden and unspoken – as Esme becomes, a family secret, locked away for sixty years.

Their grandmother swept into the room ‘Kitty,’ there was an unaccustomed smile on her face, ‘stir yourself. You have a visitor.’

Kitty put down her needle. ‘Who?’

Their mother appeared behind the grandmother. ‘Kitty,’ she said ‘quickly put that away. He’s here, he’s downstairs . . . ‘

. . . .

Esme watched from the window-seat as her mother started fiddling with Kitty’s hari, tucking it behind her ears, then releasing it. . . . . Ishbel turned and, catching sight of Esme at the window, said ‘You, too. Quickly now.’

Esme took the stairs slowly. She had no desire to meet one of Kitty’s suitors. They all seemed the same to her – nervous men with over-combed hair, scrubbed hands and pressed shirts. They came and drank tea, and she and Kitty were expected to talk to them while their mother sat like an umpire in a chair across the room. The whole thing made Esme want to burst into honesty, to say, let’s forget this charade, do you want to marry her or not?

She dawdled on the landing, looking at a grim, grey-skied watercolour of the Fife coast. But her grandmother appeared in the hall below. ‘Esme!’ she hissed, and Esme clattered down the stairs.

In the drawing room, she plumped down in a chair with high arms in the corner. She wound her ankles round its polished legs and eyed the suitor. The same as ever. Perhaps a little more good-looking than some of the others. Blond hair, an arrogant forehead, fastidious cuffs. He was asking Ishbel something about the roses in a bowl on the table. Esme had to repress the urge to roll her eyes. Kitty was sitting bolt upright on the sofa, pouring tea into a cup, a blush creeping up her neck.

Esme began playing the game she often played with herself at times like this, looking over the room and working out how she might get round it without touching the floor. She could climb from the sofa to the low table and, from there, to the fender stool. Along that, and then –

She realized her mother was loooking at her, saying something.

‘What was that?” Esme said.

‘James was addressing you.’ her mother said, and the slight flare of her nostrils meant, Esme knew, that she’d better behave or there would be trouble later.

As with many inconvenient women, Esme ends up committed at a loony-bin, and sixty years later, is released into the custody of a grand-niece who never even knew Esme existed.

The thoughts, trials and escapades of three women, Esme, her sister Kitty, and Iris, the grand-niece, intertwine through out the book, and the picture is cloudy at first, blurry, shifting, fragmented The pattern becomes more and more clear as the three threads of thought are woven – ever more tightly – together.

I could not put this book down. Finding out how the picture came together became more important than checking my messages, my blog, or fixing dinner. It was compelling, and resulted in a quick and unforgettable read.

August 20, 2009 - Posted by | Adventure, Books, Character, Civility, Community, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Generational, India, Interconnected, Living Conditions, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Relationships, Social Issues, Women's Issues

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