Edinburgh in the 1930s. The Lennox family is having trouble with its youngest daughter. Esme is outspoken, unconventional, and repeatedly embarrasses them in polite society. Something will have to be done.
Years later, a young woman named Iris Lockhart receives a letter informing her that she has a great-aunt in a psychiatric unit who is about to be released.
Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris’s questions. What could Esme have done to warrant a lifetime in an institution? And how is it possible for a person to be so completely erased from a family’s history?
This book was the first Maggie O’Farrell I ever read, and it really is a little gem. I fell head over heels for the confused and bewildered Esme, discharged from the mental health unit she’s been in for almost sixty years. Great niece Iris, is contacted out of the blue, to be told that the unit is closing and patients are ok to be looked after in the community. Iris had no idea she even existed. In a dual timeline we learn how she and Iris get on, but also how this family managed to remove Esme from their tree so completely. Where does it begin?
Let us begin with two girls at a dance… Or perhaps not. Perhaps it begins earlier, before the party. Before they dressed in their new finery, before the candles were lit, before the sand was sprinkled on the boards, before the years whose end they were celebrating first began. Who knows? Either way it ends at a grille covering a window, with each square exactly two thumbnails wide.
The beauty of Maggie O’Farrell’s description here is typical. A layering of small details captured in the narrator’s mind, that takes us to the preparations for the party towards the end of the book, but also how it appears in our narrator’s field of vision. We drift across three narrators: Esme, her sister Kitty and their great-niece Iris. They stumble across each other sometimes, one pushing in before the other’s quite finished as families tend to do. Esme was a feisty, wild little girl in a time when there were rules about how little girls should behave. In a household overseen by their rather austere grandmother, with her mother and father struggling to control her. This is the 1930s, so their methods are cruel, tying her to a chair for example and forgetting about her. One day they leave her home while they go on a trip out, not wanting to deal with her behaviour. While she and her baby brother Hugo are alone, something terrible happens and from then on, their mother will barely look at her.
We hear through Kitty’s narrative, how differently the family treats her. Now in a nursing home, suffering from dementia, Kitty has always told her great niece that she was an only child, but Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister. Kitty remembers in fits and starts, disjointed scenes that come to her, then drift away again. This is beautifully managed by the author, who creates a fragile lace work of memories, that shed further light on the sister’s relationship. Kitty was the conforming child, moulded to the will of the family. Esme was more inventive, creative and has constant questions. Finally there’s Iris’s narrative and she really had enough on her plate already, without having a great-aunt with psychiatric problems dropped on her without warning. She has a vintage shop, a married lover who won’t make a decision and a grandmother with dementia to visit. Now she’s fascinated with what she’s discovered, while trying to understand what happened to Esme. She trawls the records at the old Cauldstone Hospital, discovering a list of women and the reason for their admittance to the asylum. She reads with horror, that within these walls, were women who had wandered from the house at night, another who had taken too many long walks, refused too many offers of marriage or had eloped with a legal clerk. All of these reasons deemed enough to commit a woman to time in the asylum, often forgotten about.
What slowly emerges is a heartbreaking secret, so terrible it stuns Esme to silence. I love the way that the author understands how psychological trauma can affect someone. In Esme’s case a build-up of traumatic incidents and abusive behaviour slowly breaks her down. It’s distressing to see a girl with such spirit, slowly being broken like a wild horse. After sixty years inside she has turned into this mute, biddable old lady. Having worked in mental health for over twenty years, I understand the dilemma of what to do with people who are so institutionalised they can’t cope outside the walls of their prison. I looked after some of these people in the 1990s as homes closed and terrified people were being pushed out into the community. Perhaps because of them, Esme is one of those characters I fell in love with. What she experiences is so hard to overcome and I found myself at turns furious and devastated for her. The ending was perhaps inevitable, but still took me aback. This book has stayed with me for years and I think it always will.
Meet The Author
Maggie O’Farrell is the author of the Sunday Times no. 1 bestselling memoir I AM, I AM, I AM, and eight novels: AFTER YOU’D GONE, MY LOVER’S LOVER, THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US, which won a Somerset Maugham Award, THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX, THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award, INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa Novel Award, and HAMNET which readers will know was my favourite book of last year. She lives in Edinburgh.