Maggie O'Farrell (4 stars)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (Review)


The parameters of mental illness have shifted over the years, but not so long ago young women could be sectioned simply for being what most parents term ‘a handful.’ The eponymous heroine of Maggie Farrell’s heartbreaking new novel is one such teenager. Spirited, intelligent and utterly stifled by 1930s upper-class life, Esme Lennox’s refusal to conform leads to 60 years in a mental institution.

O’Farrell slowly pieces together memories of a stolen life when Lennox is finally released into the care of her great-niece Iris, a young woman equally unwilling to toe the line but mercifully born into more liberal times. Switching between pre-war and modern-day Edinburgh, O’Farrell illustrates that, while the methods may have become more subtle, women are still pushed in the direction of ‘acceptable behaviour’. A touching, tragic story told in a dreamlike narrative which stays with you long after the book is closed.

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