While a key mystery pertains to The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (in fact, maybe even two or three), the novel itself it not your typical mystery when we think of the genre.
The novel shifts back and forth between time periods (two predominant ones, the 1930s and the present) as well as character perspectives. Within the plot, we discover under what circumstances a woman named Esme Lennox was institutionalized as well as the hidden effects this had on those in the present. The 1930s perspective gives glimpses of Esme’s upbringing and early youth as well as giving some background into her family. During this time, we come to understand a bit about her character and some of the conflicts she had with her parents and others. Flash forward to the present narration, a young woman named Iris gets a message that she has a great aunt—someone she has never heard of—who is being released from a psychiatric unit.
Maggie O’Farrell has a fragmented, jumpy way of bringing this story to light. There are no chapter delineations, but rather shifts back and in forth from various times and characters’ perspectives (Iris, Esme, Esme’s sister Kitty). Rather than being a deterrent, this type of narration seems to parallel and work in tandem with puzzling nature of Esme’s “imprisonment”, as we are given bits and pieces to try to put the entire picture together. And, while it does get a tad confusing sometimes, there is enough in the way of hints and clues to help us form a picture in the final parts (although I believe there is still some ambiguity in understanding the final scene). In this way, I really felt like this constant shifting back and forth was effective in creating the effect of the murky puzzle and mystery that slowly unfolds and comes into view.
Among the many powerful aspects, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox lends itself to reflection after the final page and is a discussion piece about the nature of institutionalizing those who are deemed “different” or “atypical” of certain societal norms. O’Farrell handles the story eloquently, and has the right amount of pathos, heart-wrenching moments that help you empathize with Esme, and moments of intrigue and mystery. The novel is as much about the tragedy of a life lost as well as a mystery into uncovering the background into Esme, her family, and their situation as it is coming to terms with how the events and moments of the past have affected relationships in the present.
I thought this was a unique take on the mystery genre, and one of the more original novels I have read recently. I had not heard of this author or her works, but I am glad this novel was brought to my attention and look forward to reading O’Farrell more in the future.