Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; Maggie O'Farrell

I found this on the ‘fortunate finds’ new release shelves in my local library back in late summer, although it was published back in 2006 by Harcourt. Ms. O’Farrell is a UK born writer whose other novels have received critical acclaim. Click the link in the title above to go to her website for more details. I was initially attracted by the cover, although the text on the flap intrigued me too. I was reminded, improbably enough, of one of Holly Black’s faerie novels in which an elderly woman has been institutionalized due to perceived instability. Prior to reading Ms. O’FarrelI’s novel this was distant intellectual knowledge as opposed to emotional realization of the potential exploitation of women by the men in their lives.

The plot opens with middle aged Iris Lockheart trying to deal with the news that she has an elderly relative in a mental institution, said institution is closing and the powers that be need Iris’ input into what will happen to Esme Lennox, Iris’ great aunt. It turns out that Esme is Kitty Lennox’s sister, whose very existence Iris’ mother Kitty denied. Kitty claimed to be an only child and of course Iris believed her. Iris becomes attached to Esme and when difficulties arise in getting a bed in another care home, Iris takes Esme to her home for the weekend. The story is superficially easy and the reader is lured into thinking TVAoEL will follow conventional lines. We would be wrong.

TVAoEL is a meditation on revenge (to exact atonement/amends or punishment for a wrong or injuries; Random House College Dictionary, 1st edition) versus vengeance (infliction of injury, harm, humiliation, etc. on a person by another who has been harmed by him; Random House College Dictionary, 1st edition). Ms. O’Farrell brings up questions of justice and mercy, revenge and vengeance, truth and lies in the context of the most intimate family relationships. We learn about men’s incredible legal power over women which effectively infantilized us in the eyes of the law. This power was sanctioned by the state, ie: men in power, and by society at large. Ms. O’Farrell draws us a picture, an emotional portrait, if you will, of the long term consequences this has on one family. Regrets come too late and are too few.

This is easily one of the most powerful and mesmerizing books I’ve ever come across. I read it twice and it was a page turner each time. Likely it is a book I will buy for my home library and will reread for years to come. Very highly recommended.

Image found on Harcourt Books

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