Monday, April 12, 2010

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

Wow - what a weird, twisting, convoluted, powerful, confusing, emotional, fascinating book!! A friend recommended this to me after I told her about Still Alice, which I had recently read (fiction written from the POV of a woman with Alzheimer's). I got it (free!) from the library on audio/download.

I think reading this book must have been incredibly hard to follow, because the author uses the POV of Esme as a child, Esme as an adult, Iris in current time, Iris in current time remembering past occurrences, and Kitty, from her demented and aged self remembering things from the past - all without much in the way of clues when the POV changes. The narrator, Anne Flosnik, was superb - rich Scottish accents in voices that portrayed all the POVs beautifully, so that following it was easy once you'd picked up on the different tone and timbre she used for each character.

It's a psychological thriller, a mystery of where Esme has been for the past 60 years, and why. But she hasn't actually disappeared - she has been in Cauldstone Hospital, a mental asylum, since she was 16. When the story starts, we hear from Esme as a child in India, growing up with her older sister Kitty. The story from Iris's point of view is current time - she's in an affair with a married man, running a resale shop, living a sort of oddly normal life. Because she is the only other living relative of Kitty, her grandmother, she must deal with Esme, her great-aunt of whom she had no prior knowledge, because Cauldstone Hospital is being closed. Iris visits her grandmother - now too far into dementia to even recognize Iris - and the grandmother, in her own world, remembering only things long past and even then, only in fits and starts - confirms Esme's relationship.

Iris originally plans to take Esme to a half-way house of sorts until a better facility can be found, but finds she cannot leave her in the horrible place they have sent her to stay.

But it isn't so much about where any of the women are physically. It's about where they are emotionally, mentally, and what is going on in their minds as they each deal with their lives and the choices that they have had made for them.

It was almost like watching a wreck in slow motion - I sensed where it was going, and wanted to turn away but couldn't. When all the truths were finally revealed, and the last inevitable action was in sight, I felt like I was left to deal with the emotional aftermath which is not really spelled out, but left for the reader's imagination.

Highly recommended - especially in audio. 5 stars

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