Friday, May 01, 2009

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

Yet another in what seems to be quite a run on Scottish novels. Edinburgh novels, even, to be more precise. I had read some very good reviews of this book, and tagged it on my TBR list on GoodReads, but never quite picked it up.

Of course, then it started showing up in the Heavily Discounted piles at B&N, down to about $4 in hardcover, which totally gave off an unwholesome odor of "overrated." Since I don't need any more books, as I have no where to put them any more, I ended up getting it from the library.

Wow. Really a good read, and as I have been stuck with a bunch of books that haven't been worth finishing (sorry, Book Clubbers, but we've had some really whiffy picks recently), this was especially welcome.

Set in modern day Edinburgh, we are introduced to Iris Lockhart, a young woman who owns a vintage shop, who is happy enough with her married lover but doesn't want him to leave his wife. One immediately gets the sense that she doesn't want that much closeness or responsibility. She gets a phone call regarding a Euphremia Esme Lennox, allegedly her great-aunt, who has been held in a mental hospital for over 60 years. The hospital is closing, and the patients must be rehoused.

Iris is completely unprepared for this. Her grandmother, Kitty Lockhart, said she was an only child; Iris's father, Robert Lockhart, was an only child; Iris herself is an only child. And now there is no one to ask. Robert died years ago of a drug allergy; Kitty is suffering from Alzheimer's and is in a nursing home. In the end, Iris goes to see this mysterious woman, and recognizes some family traits. Although she is advised by her lover and her step-brother that she has no responsibility, Iris finds she can't just refuse to help. Her attempt to place Esme in a hostel is a disaster--the place is unclean and unsafe. The hospital won't take Esme back, and Iris ends up taking her great-aunt in for the weekend.

The story is told in chunks, from different perspectives and spanning disjointed times. As the story unfolds, we see Esme as an unusual girl--tall, strong, bored to tears with the traditional roles allowed for women. A number of events mark her as odd in Edinburgh society: the girls were born and raised in India for the first 8-10 years of their lives, before their parents returned to Scotland. Of course, the girls had no "suitable" clothes for the cold norther climate, and their failure to understand what all the layers were and how to wear them was ascribed to feeble-mindedness.

We learn early that Esme was an uncooperative student, while Kitty did as she was expected to. One horrible week, Kitty and the parents left for a social engagement, leaving Esme and the baby Hugo in the care of the servants. The house was struck by typhoid, and Hugo and the ayah died. The rest of the servants fled, and locked the house behind them, and Esme was trapped alone in the house with the dead bodies for three days.

As a schoolgirl in Scotland, Esme was subjected to "Mean Girls" hazing, and while she liked learning, the social aspects were beyond her. However, due to the family's social status, it was unthinkable for her to continue her education beyond her teens. She was expected to stay and home and wait to get married; and she had absolutely no interest in that or any of her social obligations. Kitty becomes increasingly irritated with her younger sister, feeling that her own chances of marrying are diminishing due to Esme's idiosyncratic behavior.

The first crisis comes in the wake of the devestatingly charming Jamie Deziel--the most sought after young man in the city. Kitty is desperately in love with him, but it becomes apparent that he prefers Esme. At his family's New Year's Eve ball, he partners with Esme and sweeps her out of the ballroom and makes clear he prefers her. She refuses him, but allows him to kiss her. He overpowers her and rapes her, then returns to the party. She is found in a closet, unable to stop screaming.

This is the end of her family's tolerance for her. She is committed to a mental hospital, perhaps only until Kitty can marry, and Esme eventually gives birth to the Deziel baby. In the interim, Kitty has married another boy, who refuses to consummate the marriage. Kitty has become desperate for a child, and discovers that she can adopt Esme's baby. Esme's "temporary" incarceration becomes permanent because Kitty cannot face the truth of what she has done.
Even in her confusion, Kitty insists that she didn't intend for Esme to be in the hospital permanently; and also that "I didn't take it." Meaning the baby.

Some of the most powerful writing is about Esme's story: the horror of her brother's death, the terrifying helplessness of her situation. She couldn't convince anyone she wasn't mad, or that she was there by mistake, or even that she should be released. Her desperate desire to keep her baby was coldly ignored, as the baby was removed and she was wrestled to the ground, sedated, and put into heavy security--for the "crime" of refusing to cooperate.

For someone who was locked away for 60 years, Esme is remarkably calm and sane. In the bathroom at Iris's flat, she looks at the razor Iris has left out, and thinks that this is the first unsupervised bath she has had in over 60 years. Which is really quite remarkable, if you think about it.

My summarization here does not do the book justice--the facts are revealed so carefully, as layer after layer of obfuscation is removed, and the characters of the three women are revealed, the book is really quite absorbing. Even unputdownable. Iris has her own story, her own issues, and her life is what Esme's might have been had she been born later. Iris defies the advice she gets from the men in her life, and had she been in Esme's place, might also have been institutionalized for her "unnatural" behavior.

Carefully written, compact and compelling--this is a book that can be read in one sitting, and hard to put down until the end.

The end is somewhat confusing, as it tremendously impressionistic. Esme has figured out that her baby was given to Kitty, and that Iris is her granddaughter. She asks to visit Kitty, and the two of them sit alone in Kitty's room for a while. It appears that Esme confronts Kitty with what she has done, and perhaps kills Kitty in revenge. Certainly, Kitty ends up dead, and nursing home authorities surround Esme and attempt to remove her. Iris refuses to let go of Esme's hand, but it is not entirely clear what has happened, or what will happen next.

The final paragraph is:

But the people in uniform are upon them, muttering, exclaiming, enveloping them in a great white cloud. Iris cannot see anything but starched white cotton. It presses against her shoulders, her hair, it covers her mouth. They are taking Esme, they are pulling her up from the sofa, they are trying to extract her hand from Iris's. But Iris does not let go. She grips the hand tighter. She will go with it, she will follow it, through the white, through the crowd, out of the room, into the corridor and beyond.

What is going on here? Kitty is presumably dead, and Esme is the logical suspect. But it feels inconsistent with the Esme we have seen up to this point. Esme has been cool, a survivor, someone who didn't seem to need revenge for what happened to her, because it is too clear to her that people are still frightened of her. She knows she is not mad, just not willing to accept the bad choices offered her as a young woman. The fact that she has lost so much of her life is horrible, but nothing in her character prepared me for such a irrational act. If she did kill Kitty, she did it with a calmness that guarantees she is going to be re-incarcerated either in prison or another hospital--and I am convinced that she realizes that.

Maybe she did kill Kitty, and maybe her revenge is being served cold. I'm not totally on board with that, but I'm willing to accept that possibility. So why is Iris committing herself to staying with Esme? What does this story do to Iris--how does it change her self-perceptions to such a degree that she is preparing to follow Esme to "beyond?"

I'm willing to do some research to find what other readers think about the ending. It's open ended enough that it has stayed on my mind, and makes the entire experience of reading the book hard to move away from. Definitely recommended!