Iris Lockhart is an ordinary young woman. She is ringed by the customary circles of friends and family, and is moderately successful, the owner of a vintage clothing shop. Even the boondoggle in her love-life is commonplace—a married boyfriend who presses for commitment. But one day, she receives a phone call informing her of a relative whose existence she knows nothing about—her grandmother’s sister, Esme, who has been in a mental institution for sixty years. With the hospital’s imminent closure, Esme has nowhere to go, for Iris’s grandmother Kitty suffers from Alzheimer’s, while Kitty’s son, Iris’s father, died long ago. There are no other blood relatives; to her chagrin, Iris finds herself housing her grand-aunt in her attic apartment.
But Esme is remarkably lucid and intelligent, so much so Iris is forced to question the circumstances of her hospitalization. Could the mad aunt in the attic be sane after all?
Meet Esme Lennox, a high-spirited, imaginative girl growing up in British-ruled India. When her baby brother dies from typhoid, Esme and her elder sister Kitty return with their parents to Edinburgh, where her grandmother lives. While adaptable Kitty quickly learns the ways of polite society, the teenage Esme proves an embarrassment to her parents. She is intelligent and dangerously out-spoken, proclaiming her preference for studies and world travel rather than marriage—enough to stain her as eccentric in 1930s Scotland. Esme’s behavior is nothing less than calamitous to her parents, jeopardizing their standing in society and diminishing Kitty’s chances of an advantageous marriage. When Esme is raped, her parents, in a face-saving measure, declare her eccentricities insanity, and flick her away to an institution. Her hospital admission record cites her insistence “on keeping her hair long” as well as an episode where she danced before a mirror “dressed in her mother’s clothes” among the reasons for her incarceration.
The last time I was so furious on behalf of a fictional character, Tom Robinson was found guilty by an all-white jury in Maycomb. Sadly, Esme Lennox’s tale is grounded in reality; all the law required at that time from a man to institutionalize his wife or daughter was a GP’s signature. Other cases mentioned by O’Farrell in the novel include a woman who took “long, solitary walks,” and “refused offers of marriage,” another “eloped to Ireland with a legal clerk”—all perfectly legitimate reasons for incarceration in that era, apparently. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a shocking reminder of the circumstances under which the feminist movement emerged; more recently than is comfortable, it was indeed a radical notion that women, too, were people.
O’Farrell tells the story in three voices—Iris’s, Esme’s and the Alzheimer-fractured thoughts of Kitty. In a in a clever irony, the meaninglessness of time for Kitty becomes the key to bridging the intervening years between Iris and Esme; it is Kitty’s scattershot, staccato narrative that draws together the other stories. O’Farrell delights in such subtleties, and her delicate touch comes into full play when detailing the parallels between Iris and Esme. While these two seem to have little in common, we soon learn that Iris too is confronting society’s strictures, first, by her affair with a married man, and second, by nursing a forbidden passion for another person (to say more would be to give a plot point away). Taboos—and the price paid by women for breaking them—lie at the heart of this moving, intelligent novel. Well-behaved women seldom make history, but all too often, women who chose not to obey are history—condemned to the past, as it were, while still alive. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is eloquent testimony as much to the dangers of blind complaisance as to rebellion, making it profoundly relevant even in today’s supposedly post-feminist world.
(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.)