Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Presto, a Perfect Book!

"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" by Maggie O'Farrell



The mental institution that housed Euphemia Esme Lennox since she was 16 is closing down. After over 60 years being there, Esme has almost no relatives who could help. The one person they find is her great-niece, Iris Lockheart. The problem is that Iris didn't even know Esme existed, so she has a double dilemma - what to do with her elderly great-aunt, and how can she find out why the family never mention her. This is the basis for Maggie O'Farrell's novel "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox."

The phrase "once in a blue moon" comes to mind when I think about this book. I say that because it is only that often that one finds a truly original writer and a truly beautifully written book that feels so right. Of course, this makes reviewing the book all the more difficult, since my enthusiasm may not give my readers the right impression of this book. But then again, how can I not review a book that I love so much?

The first thing you'll notice about this book is the beauty of the prose. O'Farrell uses deceptively simple language to paint pictures of the action. The opening paragraph describes two girls at a dance, and immediately we know how different these two girls are in personality. Also within that paragraph, we discover this is a flashback, with the next paragraphs bringing us into present day as smoothly as a perfectly faded-in movie scene. No long explanations, no descriptions to plod through, just unadorned words, all presented in a straightforward and clear fashion.

Within the first few pages, we already feel that we know quite a bit about Esme, and both her past in India and Scotland as well as her present in the asylum. Here's someone who was headstrong and independent at a time when young girls were supposed to be quiet, withdrawn women. Today, locked up with some crazy people, we see that Esme is also an old woman, clutching at the memories of those painfully few years of youth and freedom, and she seems far more trapped than insane.

Then, only a few pages later, when there's a break in the text, we meet Iris and her own, less than trouble-free life. We quickly realize being responsible for her heretofore-unknown great-aunt that even her mother in Australia has never heard of, is only going to compound Iris' problems. Then there's Iris's affair with a married man, along with her unusual (almost incestuous) closeness to her (also married) stepbrother. We also find out that her father died when she was young and she owns a second-hand shop. What's more, the only link to this mysterious new relative is Iris' Alzheimer-ridden grandmother, Kitty, Esme's sister. All this comes with a frugal economy of prose, stunningly woven, within Esme's parts of the story - and you haven't even finished 30 pages yet!

The story comes together like a perfectly choreographed ballet, with each of the main dancers showing you their steps only when the time is right. O'Farrell does this with many methods, and using mostly third-person certainly helps us feel we have an overview of everything that is unfolding here. Something particularly unique here is how she cuts between parts of her story by stopping the narration in mid-thought and then immediately picking up with someone else, almost in mid-thought. This may sound confusing, but by then, we know these characters so well, we can quickly figure out who is the focus in each bit. This technique also points up Kitty's Alzheimer's, Esme's grappling to preserve her sanity and memories, and even Iris's puzzling to discover the truth behind their histories. All this comes together in an amazing "pas-de-trois" climax and shocking conclusion between these three women.

One of the best elements of this book is that after that climax, it doesn't then start tying up all the loose ends for a nice, neat package. That would have been contradictory to the rest of the book's style. I can safely say that this story finishes with the most perfect ending I've read in a very long while. The only other element of this book I want to mention is the title, which actually is more meaningful than it seems. This "vanishing act" is not only an indication of Esme's being made to "disappear" but it also doubles as one of Esme's own defense mechanisms - as when things are unpalatable to her, she withdraws from her surroundings. This is very realistic especially if you consider Esme's institutionalization as having probably been unwarranted, combined with other elements you'll only discover if you read the book - and read it, you must!

This is one of the most artistic and original piece of writing I've read in a very long time. The characters are drawn in both gentle and swift strokes, revealing far more about them in a few words than other authors do in whole volumes. The story line is as fascinating as a mystery novel, and equally as exciting to see how O'Farrell pieces it all together. The language is both beautiful and unpretentious, making the less than 300 pages just fly by. The only drawback with this book is that you'll want to both gobble it up, while also wanting to savor every single word. After that, of course I'm giving it a full five stars out of five.



"The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" by Maggie O'Farrell is available from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better WorldBooks as well as from an IndieBound store near you. (This is a version of the review that originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network as well as on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

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