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

Iris, a career woman with a full social life, receives a letter informing her that the hospital in which her great aunt has been living is to close. But this is the first that Iris has ever heard of her great aunt Euphemia (or Esme, as she prefers to be called). Iris' mother shares her ignorance, and her grandmother - Euphemia's putative sister - is now suffering from Alzheimer's, and so is not a very reliable source of information.

Rather like After You'd Gone, the narrative flits around here, both in time and point-of-view. And, as in that book, the overall picture of what happened becomes gradually more clear as different sections cover Esme's childhood in India and then Scotland, Iris' relationship with her lover and family, and Kitty's (Esme's sister) rather disjointed thoughts following Iris' attempt to obtain information from her about Esme.

Esme was placed in the hospital ostensibly as a result of being schizophrenic, and after being there for sixty years one expects that she may lack some presence of mind. But one of the tingly bits of the book is when Iris meets her for the first time, and she talks perfectly intelligently and rationally. I think it's to the author's credit that she makes you believe that Esme could have been sectioned, while at the same time having her behave in an almost perfectly rational way.

The only issues I had were down to parts of it being set in India (for some reason I have a problem with stories set in foreign countries in the past - had similar issues with Frankie and Stankie and also Midnight's Children IIRC) although that's not really Maggie O'Farrell's fault. But I was conscious that I felt a lot more engaged with the sections set in the present - covering Iris' life (which I think would have been interesting enough on its own for a book).

The other one was that I didn't find the ramblings of Kitty (Esme's senile sister) to be altogether convincing. Or at least, I think this has been done better (Casting Off).

But all in all a good read.

Completed : 31-Dec-2008

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