The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell: Review & Recommend | ELLIE LOVES

TW: rape (non-explicit), death of infant, abuse of psychiatric patients.

Maggie O’Farrell was the name on everyone in the literary world’s lips last year, thanks to her novel Hamnet. However, until I received The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox in Hachette’s Feminist Book Box, I hadn’t ever heard of it. I was intrigued by it as soon as I received it, and it spent an impressively short amount of time waiting on my TBR compared to most other books that I have!

The book is told from multiple points of view, jumping between Iris, her grandmother Kitty, and Kitty’s long-lost sister, Esme. Iris, who has never heard of Esme, is shocked to be receiving calls from a sanitarium, asking her to take responsibility for her great-aunt. Naturally, Iris starts asking questions of her family history, and as the book goes on, more and more of her family’s past is uncovered.

Multiple points of view is generally not something that attracts me to a book, as it’s hard to pull it off and make sure that the writing is easy to follow without seriously breaking the flow. For the most part, O’Farrell managed to do this for me really well. Kitty, who has Alzheimer’s, has a voice that is very distinct from Esme and Iris, and the sections from her point of view are really a stream-of-consciousness, with the stream tailing off and taking sudden turns, to mimic the way the Alzheimer’s has affected her thinking. Iris and Esme, on the other hand, could be a little harder to distinguish between when Esme’s point of view was focused on the present. Both of them had very similar voices in the text, and instead it was contextual clues that provided the hint as to the point-of-view character. This didn’t detract from the actual flow of the text for me, however, so I think that overall, it was definitely a successful use of split-POV, which isn’t something I often say!

I found Esme to be a fascinating character, and I felt a lot of sympathy for her as her background was revealed throughout the story. She was really well-written, and she completely turned my expectations on my head from when we were first introduced to her character, which I really enjoyed. Iris was another character that I enjoyed reading, though I didn’t find her as interesting as Esme. At the heart of it, she’s very much a normal person flung into discovering her very abnormal family history. Still, while she didn’t stand out as the most interesting character, she was another well-written character, and she was definitely a character that the reader could relate to. Unfortunately, while Kitty’s sections were interesting from a formal point of view, and provided some hints as to the slowly unravelling story of Esme’s past, I didn’t feel as though they added very much to the story narratively, and most if not all of what was hinted at in these sections was uncovered and explained in greater detail through the flashback sections told from younger Esme’s point of view.

I have to be honest here: the plot twist at the end didn’t blow me away. I hadn’t really suspected it, though of course, looking back there were subtle hints that, at the time, seemed to point to a different event entirely. However, the plot twist felt a bit too similar to other books I’ve read recently. Without giving too much away, it’s very like the style of book I’ve read a few times recently, where a young woman works alongside an older woman to uncover the older woman’s past and, in doing so, discovers some uncomfortable truth that links the pair together that was known all along (or at least suspected) by the elder. So, while I didn’t exactly see it coming, it did feel like a trick I’ve seen rather too many times recently, but I suppose that’s my fault for picking up such similar books. In O’Farrell’s defence, I believe The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was published before most of these other books I’m talking about, so I think it was just a bit of an unfortunate time for me to pick up the book. It didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment, thankfully, so I can’t be too upset. The plot twist at the end of the book also set up the final, very dramatic scene, which I really don’t want to give away, but that one was definitely unexpected, and I had to go back and read the last few pages again to be really sure of what had just happened.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book if you’re into family-oriented mysteries, and if you like a bit of suspense and tension in your reads. There’s also a little bit of taboo romance if that’s your sort of thing — think affairs and a relationship that borders on incestuous. This definitely wasn’t anything like Hamnet, so don’t go picking this up if you’re looking for another historical epic, but if contemporary mystery is your jam, then this is definitely the read for you.

2 thoughts on “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell: Review & Recommend | ELLIE LOVES

  1. […] The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell.I got this book in one of the Feminist Book Boxes, and I’m really glad that I had the chance to pick it up! I might eventually have discovered it on my own, given that I was aware of Maggie O’Farrell thanks to Hamnet, but who knows. It’s a great cross-generational story, exploring ideas around mental illness and family values. You can find my full review here. […]

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