THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX
By Maggie O'Farrell
Harcourt. 245 pp. $23
Maggie O'Farrell's three previous novels have been respectfully reviewed, but her new one radiates the kind of energy that marks a classic. Think Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" or Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea: stories that illuminate the suffering quietly endured by women in polite society. To that list of insightful feminist tales add The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. At the heart of this fantastic new novel is a mystery you want to solve until you start to suspect the truth, and then you read on in a panic, horrified that you may be right.
The structure of the novel is a challenge, more like a dare, the kind of purposefully scrambled puzzle that makes you wonder if it's all just too much work to figure out who's talking and when this happened and what that means. But forge on: O'Farrell isn't merely showing off; she's forcing us to participate in a family's ghastly conspiracy of forgetting.
In the present day, we meet Iris Lockhart, a Scottish shop owner who specializes in vintage clothing. She's entangled in an unsatisfying affair with a married man and a mostly repressed relationship with her stepbrother. The last thing she has time for is a cryptic letter, then a phone call from a nearby mental hospital. It seems budget cuts have encouraged the staff to reevaluate all their patients, and some old woman named Euphemia Lennox is being released after 60 years.
"I have no idea who you people are or what you want," Iris tells them, "but I've never heard of Euphemia Lennox."
A case worker patiently explains: "It's not unusual for patients of ours to . . . shall we say, fall out of sight." Euphemia -- Esme -- is her great-aunt, a woman no one in the family has ever mentioned. Friends warn her not to get involved, but then Iris meets her in the fetid hospital: She had been "expecting someone frail or infirm, a tiny geriatric, a witch from a fairytale. But this woman is tall, with an angular face and searching eyes. She has an air of slight hauteur, the expression arch, the brows raised. Although she must be in her seventies, there is something incongruously childlike about her. . . . Without warning, Euphemia's hand shoots out and seizes her wrist. Iris cannot help herself: she jumps back, turning to look for the nurse, the social worker. Immediately Euphemia lets go. 'Don't worry,' she says, with an odd smile. 'I don't bite.' "
That mixture of sympathy, wit and menace is only part of what makes the novel so irresistible. Seeing Esme's desperation, Iris decides to help her find somewhere to live. The interaction between this thoroughly modern young woman and her great-aunt, who's just stepped from some ghastly Brigadoon, is surprisingly poignant. Released into the modern world after more than half a century, Esme has "a certain wide-eyed quality, her lack of inhibition, perhaps -- that marks her out from other people. . . . She is doing everything, Iris notices, with an odd kind of reverence. How mad is she?" They're both terrified the first night: Iris expects to be stabbed by the "mad old woman," while Esme worries she'll be sent back to that hellhole.
Modern cars, planes and radios are marvels to her, but the wind, the sea, the freedom to walk, "her first unsupervised bath for over sixty years," these are the pleasures Esme soaks up, and her wonder makes Iris reexamine everything around her.
But beneath this story, O'Farrell has written a searing indictment of the way psychiatry was used to control women and girls who refused to conform. Searching for an explanation of her aunt's incarceration, Iris finds reports in the hospital's archives that regard psychotic and perfectly ordinary behavior with equal suspicion. The medical standards sound as crazy as any of the "symptoms" being detailed: "Iris reads of refusals to speak, of unironed clothes, of arguments with neighbors, of hysteria, of unwashed dishes and unswept floors, 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 ends of their tethers, of parents unable to understand the women their daughters have become, or fathers who insist, over and over again, that she used to be such a lovely little thing."
And finally she finds Esme's admission report from when she was 16 years old. It contains these weirdly innocuous details: "Insists on keeping her hair long. . . . Parents report finding her dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother's clothes."
The solution to this puzzle comes slowly in two vastly different and much older stories that O'Farrell weaves through the description of Iris's nervous weekend with her long-lost aunt. It's a challenge, but you'll eventually learn to recognize these disparate voices -- and come to see the brilliance of mixing them like this. In one, an omniscient narrator tells brief, Gothic anecdotes about Esme's adolescence. She was the precocious daughter of a wealthy Scottish family that had lived in India. We see her parents mostly on the periphery: They are deeply perturbed by her irreverence, her bookishness, her refusal to participate appropriately in the social customs of their rank. "The Oddbod, they called her," but she doesn't care. Esme cannot abide the "nervous men with over-combed hair, scrubbed hands and pressed shirts" who come for tea with her and her sister. "The whole thing made Esme want to burst into honesty," which, as O'Farrell suggests, is the last thing refined society can tolerate.
Then there is a third narrator, the strange, pained, truly mad voice of Esme's sister, Kitty, whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer's. She lives in a posh rest home just a few miles from the prison-like hospital where Esme spent all those unspeakable decades. Torn by crosscurrents of guilt and self-justification, Kitty's narrative starts and stops in mid-sentences. "But I never meant for her to -- " These shards of confession don't make any sense at first, but slowly a horrible image of what happened in their house begins to develop. It's a breathtaking, heart-breaking creation.
Even a sympathetic reader, though, might wonder if, like Esme's release, this novel is 60 years too late. After all, the feminist writer of today confronts a challenge that Gilman, Rhys, Chopin or even Virginia Woolf never had to face: the threat of easy acceptance. Nowadays, we already understand how Bertha ended up in Rochester's attic; we expect Edna to take that final, liberating swim; we know who's trapped behind the yellow wallpaper. Is there really anything that would shock us about the abuse of psychiatry and medicine in the service of chauvinism and class?
The modern-day frame of this novel provides an insightful and troubling response to that objection. Of course, budget cuts and civil rights lawyers have largely dismantled the kinds of places that held people like Esme, but young women still find themselves straitjacketed by subtler forms of restraint. After all, Iris looks so free, so sexually liberated, but she's trapped, too, incapable of acting on her desires for fear of condemnation and disapproval. In O'Farrell's fierce, engrossing novel, the crimes of the past rear up with surprising vengeance. Esme Lennox won't vanish again anytime soon. ¿
Ron Charles is a senior editor at Book World. Send e-mail to email@example.com.