Iris Lockhart, single vintage-clothing shopkeeper, gets a phone call one day that tells her something impossible and confusing: her grandmother’s sister is being released from a mental hospital after 60 years of confinement.
At first, she is sure the hospital has the wrong woman – her grandmother has always vigorously asserted she is an “only.” But the hospital’s clerks are persistent, and Iris finds herself going to meet this vanished great-aunt.
Esme seems mostly normal, though with some odd quirks, and Iris likes her during the few days they spend together. She just can’t shake a nagging feeling that she’s missing something, somehow. How did this all happen? She can’t ask her grandmother, Kitty, now stricken with Alzheimer’s, and get a proper answer; she can’t go to her father, either, since he died when she was young.
Esme’s back story, as well as Kitty’s, unfolds in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Flashes of memories roll across the pages, interrupted by the present-day realities. Esme finally has a say, somewhat backwardly, as she and Iris put together the pieces and come to startling conclusions.
Maggie O’Farrell has crafted a riveting story of family secrets, heartrending tragedy and the complicated nature of love and relationships of all kinds, as well as the enduring possibility of hope for redemption. The mysteries, the secrets, the heartbreaks and the ties that bind are carefully parceled out for the reader to digest.
The somewhat spare ending is twofold: one secret is revealed that some readers may very well figure out by that time, along with the protagonists; but a surprising twist occurs that will takes them by surprise.
O’Farrell cares for her embattled, utterly human characters but doesn’t linger on too many details, which would otherwise weigh down the story. She holds us on the edge of our seats until — snap! — the book is over. It’s a gripping tale that will haunt its readers.
Rated: Moderate, for two occasions of strong language, and about five usages of milder language. Mild sexual situations.