THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX by Maggie O’Farrell

Esme I've never really known what a "Gothic" novel is. I've always assumed that I wouldn't want to read one – that it would be dark and shadowy and maybe supernatural, and that my aversion to vampire books and thrillers would combine to make me allergic to Gothic novels too. But I just finished The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell, and to my surprise, this book is often called "a Gothic novel". So that makes me rethink my whole attitude about them.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox takes place in Scotland. Iris, a single twenty-something with some men issues (she's basically in love with her married stepbrother), learns that she has an aunt that she never knew about. That aunt, Esme Lennox, has been in a mental institution for 60 years. The hospital is about to close, and Iris, who is listed as the closest relative, is summoned to retrieve her. Iris' father (Esme's nephew) is dead, and her grandmother Kitty, Esme's sister, is also institutionalized with Alzheimer's.

The book is told from three points of view: Iris', Esme's and Kitty's. Together, they tell the story of how Esme – a spirited and unconventional girl – ended up in the mental institution, as well as the layers of family secrets that kept Iris from ever finding out that she even existed. It's a sad book, to be sure, about lies and betrayal and the grave injustices done to Esme as a child by her unfeeling family. There's a coldness – a lovelessness – that infuses the whole story, and I can't recall a single warm, functional relationship in the whole book. Is that what Gothic means?

Despite its bleakness, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was a good read. I liked the rotating voices, and the way that O'Farrell teased the story out slowly, hinting at pivotal moments but not revealing them fully until chapters later. There were some plot points at the end that gave me pause (too much coincidence and perfect timing), but the final few pages were intensely satisfying. I would recommend this book, especially if you discovered that you enjoy Gothic novels long before I did!

I actually wrote about The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox back in 2007. I just read the post, and the review I linked to also had the same issues I had with the ending. Glad to know it's not just my usual pickiness about endings! I picked this book up on audio from the library, but the discs were a bit scratched up, so I ended up mostly reading this in hardcover (the book has been on my shelf since 2007 too). Is there anything more annoying than a skipping audiobook CD? What I did hear of the audiobook was pretty good. I liked the narrator's different accents for the different characters. There are some passages in the book (Kitty's sections) that are told in stream-of-consciousness, and the audio is a bit hard to follow in those sections because O'Farrell jumps around so much. At least on paper, you can see where the paragraph breaks are. 

Are you a Gothic novel fan? What have you read in this genre that you recommend?

11 Comments

  • November 6, 2010 - 10:52 am | Permalink

    I’m not really sure what a Gothic novel is either, but I’ve seen the term used a lot. I may have to read this book just to find out.

  • Kiki
    November 6, 2010 - 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I thought a Gothic novel was like Jane Eyre, or Rebecca or Haunting of Hill House or The Thirteenth tale–pretty young things in creepy settings, crazy people locked in attics. Maybe I’ll do some research and get back to you!

  • November 6, 2010 - 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I think that Kathy and I will be eagerly awaiting what you learn, Kiki!

  • November 6, 2010 - 6:52 pm | Permalink

    I think Kiki pretty much has it right. Creepy old houses and estates, and an element of some kind of haunting or ghostly unfinished business. Not sure about the PYT aspect. The Little Stranger, Wuthering Heights and Turn of the Screw are some examples.

  • November 7, 2010 - 5:32 am | Permalink

    agree with everyone here. I highly recommend Michael Cox’s 2 novels: The Glass of Time and The Meaning of Night as the best in the genre.

  • November 7, 2010 - 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Wikipedia says that “Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets, and hereditary curses.” I have to say, I don’t think that TVAOEL should be described as Gothic, by this standard. There is arguable madness (tho the point of the book is that Esme really isn’t crazy”) and there are secrets, but not the rest of that list.

  • Kiki
    November 9, 2010 - 10:54 pm | Permalink

    Well, I found out that the “first” Gothic novel was published in 1764, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole! Yes, castles and all that, but back then, there were also lots of both ghosts and blood. Even RLS’s Dr Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde is considered Gothic. Edgar Allen Poe is Gothic. Also, anti-Catholicism is often featured prominently in great Britain’s Gothic lit.(who knew? I didn’t–but scary monks are Gothic!). Also, if you’ve read Northanger Abbey you’re familiar with Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho–guess what, written in 1794, it is another early Gothic novel, which Austen was making fun of in NA.
    I haven’t read Esme, but she doesn’t appear Gothic on the cover! Looks a little too cheerful for true Gothic! I think you’re right, Gayle!

  • November 9, 2010 - 11:34 pm | Permalink

    Great sleuthing, Kiki! No, Esme doesn’t seem Gothic at all. I don’t know how to explain all of those reviews!

  • November 12, 2010 - 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful review! I am a fan of “Gothic” novels, the kind that Kiki mentioned in her comment. Even if this book isn’t gothic, it still seems really interesting. Definitely got to add this to my to read list. Thanks for the review!

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