I ended up picking The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox for my Book Club to read in November. Because of the time of year, we needed a book that wouldn't take too long to read, but also had plenty of discussion points. I scrolled through my shelves and my GoodReads wishlist and finally settled on this one, fully expecting a straightforward, simply written story of a bygone era. What we found was so much more.
I found the premise interesting: A city called Edinburgh, an owner of a vintage clothing shop named Iris, and an unexpected phone call regarding her great-aunt Esme (whom she never knew existed) being released from an asylum after 60 years. Though they are basically strangers, Iris finds herself wrapped up in Esme's story nonetheless. It reminded me of The Secret Scripture, (a book I enjoyed,) and the cover of this edition was too lovely to pass up.
Esme was intriguing, her world magical--and we are offered a glimpse of it due to O'Farrell's sparse yet poetic writing. Did Esme have mental issues, or was she just different? How much would her life have been different if she'd been raised in a different time or family? Aren't all of our brains just a bit different in how they process things? Can't any normal behavior be twisted to look abnormal?
There is a rhythm to O'Farrell's writing that is captivating, making it one of those books that--once you get into the swing of its cadence--you don't want to put down, for fear that the world you've been enveloped in will dissipate and recede. This is a book to be quoted in paragraphs, rather than in sentences or pretty turns of phrase.
from page 58:
She flips back through time. 1941, 1940, 1939, 1938. The Second World War begins and is swallowed, becoming just an idea, a threat in people’s minds. The men are still in their homes, Hitler is a name in the papers, bombs, blitzes and concentration camps have never been heard of, winter becomes autumn, then summer, then spring. April yields to March, then February, and meanwhile Iris reads of refusals to speak, of unironed clothes, of arguments with neighbours, of hysteria, of unwashed dishes and unswept floor, of never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough or not in the right way or seeking them elsewhere. Of husbands at the end of their tethers, of parents unable to understand the women their daughters have become, of fathers who insist, over and over again, that she used to be such a lovely little thing. Daughters who just don’t listen. Wives who one day pack a suitcase and leave the house, shutting the door behind them, and have to be tracked down and brought back.Beautiful. I'll certainly be seeking out more of O'Farrell's works.