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The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox


The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox Cover

ISBN13: 9780156033671
ISBN10: 0156033674
Condition: Student Owned
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Let us begin with two girls at a dance.


They are at the edge of the room. One sits on a chair, opening and shutting a dance-card with gloved fingers. The other stands beside her, watching the dance unfold: the circling couples, the clasped hands, the drumming shoes, the whirling skirts, the bounce of the floor. It is the last hour of the year and the windows behind them are blank with night. The seated girl is dressed in something pale, Esme forgets what, the other in a dark red frock that doesnt suit her. She has lost her gloves. It begins here.


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 year whose end they are celebrating began. Who knows?

Either way it ends at a grille covering a window with each square exactly two thumbnails wide.


If Esme cares to gaze into the distance – that is to say, at what lies beyond the metal grille – she finds that, after a while, something happens to the focusing mechanism of her eyes. The squares of the grille will blur and, if she concentrates long enough, vanish. There is always a moment before her body reasserts itself, readjusting her eyes to the proper reality of the world, when it is just her and the trees, the road, the beyond. Nothing in between.


The squares at the bottom are worn free of paint and you can see the different layers of colour inside each other, like rings in a tree. Esme is taller than most so can reach the part where the paint is new and thick as tar.


Behind her, a woman makes tea for her dead husband. Is he dead? Or just run off? Esme doesnt recall. Another woman is searching for water to pour on flowers that perished long ago in a seaside town not far from here. It is always the meaningless tasks that endure: the washing, the cooking, the clearing, the cleaning. Never anything majestic or significant, just the tiny rituals that hold together the seams of human life. The girl obsessed with cigarettes has had two warnings already and everyone is thinking she is about to get a third. And Esme is thinking, where does it begin – is it there, is it here, at the dance, in India, before?


She speaks to no one, these days. She wants to concentrate, she doesnt like to muddy things with the distraction of speech. There is a zoetrope inside her head and she doesnt like to be caught out when it stops.


Whir, whir. Stop.


In India, then. The garden. Herself aged about four, standing on the back step.


Above her, mimosa trees are shaking their heads at her, powdering the lawn with yellow dust. If she walked across it, shed leave a trail behind. She wants something. She wants something but she doesnt know what. Its like an itch she cant reach to scratch. A drink? Her ayah? A sliver of mango? She rubs at an insect bite on her arm and pokes at the yellow dust with her bare toe. In the distance somewhere she can hear her sisters skipping-rope hitting the ground and the short shuffle of feet in between. Slap shunt slap shunt slap shunt.


She turns her head, listening for other noises. The brrrcloop-brrr of a bird in the mimosa branches, a hoe in the garden soil – scritch, scritch – and, somewhere, her mothers voice. She cant make out the words but she knows its her mother talking.


Esme jumps off the step, so that both feet land together, and runs round the side of the bungalow. Beside the lily pond, her mother is bending over the garden table, pouring tea into a cup, her father beside her in a hammock. The edges of their white clothes shimmer in the heat. Esme narrows her eyes until her parents blur into two hazy shapes, her mother a triangle and her father a line.


She counts as she walks over the lawn, giving a short hop every tenth step.


‘Oh. Her mother looks up. ‘Arent you having your nap?


‘I woke up. Esme balances on one leg, like the birds that come to the pond at night.


‘Wheres your ayah? Wheres Jamila?


‘I dont know. May I have some tea?


Her mother hesitates, unfolding a napkin across her knee.


‘Darling, I rather think—


‘Give her some, if she wants it. Her father says this without opening his eyes.


Her mother pours tea into a saucer and holds it out. Esme ducks under her outstretched hand and clambers on to her lap. She feels the scratch of lace, the heat of a body underneath white cotton. ‘You were a triangle and Father was a line.


Her mother shifts in the seat. ‘I beg your pardon?


‘I said, you were a triangle—


‘Mmm. Her mothers hands grip Esmes arms. ‘Its really too hot for cuddles today. Esme is set down on the grass again. ‘Why not go and find Kitty? See what shes up to.


‘Shes skipping.


‘Couldnt you join in?


‘No. Esme reaches out and touches the frosted icing on a bun. ‘Shes too—


‘Esme, her mother lifts her wrist clear of the table, ‘a lady waits to be offered.


‘I just wanted to see what it felt like.


‘Well, please dont. Her mother leans back in the chair and shuts her eyes.


Esme watches her for a moment. Is she asleep? A blue vein pulses in her neck and her eyes move under the lids. Tiny globes of water, no bigger than pinheads, are pushing out from the skin above her lip. Where her shoe straps end and skin begins, her mothers feet bloom red marks. Her stomach is distended, pushed out with another baby. Esme has felt it, wriggling like a caught fish. Jamila says she thinks this one is lucky, that this one will live.


Esme looks up at the sky, at the flies circling the lily flowers on the pond, at the way her fathers clothes protrude from the underside of the hammock in diamonds of loose cloth. In the distance, she can still hear Kittys skipping-rope, the scritch, scritch of the hoe – or is it a different one? Then she hears the drone of an insect. She turns her head to see it but its gone, behind her, to the left of her. She turns again but its closer, the buzz louder, and she feels the catch of its feet in her hair.


Esme springs up, shaking and shaking her head but the buzzing is louder still and suddenly she feels the crawling flutter of wings on her ear. She shrieks, flailing at her head with her hands but the buzzing is deafening now, blocking out all other sounds, and she feels the insect edging inside the narrow passage of her ear – and what will happen, will it eat through her eardrum and into her brain and will she be deaf like the girl in Kittys book? Or will she die? Or will it live in her head and she will have this noise inside her for ever?


She lets out another piercing shriek, still shaking her hair, staggering about the lawn, and the shriek turns to sobs and just as the buzzing starts to lift and the insect backs out of her ear, she hears her father saying, ‘What is the matter with the child? and her mother calling across the lawn for Jamila.


Could this be her earliest memory? It might be. A beginning of sorts – the only one she remembers.


Or it might be the time Jamila painted a lacework of henna across her palm. She saw her lifeline, her heartline interrupted by a new pattern. Or Kitty falling into the pond and having to be fished out and taken into the house in a towel. Playing jacks with the cooks children outside the gardens perimeter. Watching the earth around the muscular trunk of the banyan tree boiling with ants. It could just as easily have been these.


Perhaps it was this. A lunch when she was strapped to a chair, the binding tight across her middle. Because, as her mother announced to the room, Esme must learn to behave. Which, Esme knew, meant not getting out of her chair until the meal was finished. She loved the space under the table, you see, they couldnt keep her from it, the illicit privacy under the cloth. There is something peculiarly touching about peoples feet. Their shoes, worn down in odd places, the idiosyncrasies in lace-tying, blisters, calluses, who crossed their ankles, who crossed their knees, whose stockings had holes, who wore mismatched socks, who sat with a hand in whose lap – she knew it all. She would slip from her chair, lithe as a cat, and they couldnt reach to hook her out.


The binding is a scarf that belongs to her mother. It has a pattern Esme likes: repeating swirls in purple, red and blue. Paisley, her mother says it is called, which Esme knows is a place in Scotland.




Copyright © 2006 Maggie OFarrell


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.


Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.


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Average customer rating based on 3 comments:

tinamwriter, August 7, 2012 (view all comments by tinamwriter)
After reading this book for a book club I was amazed at the response. It has become one of our favorite books. The writing and style is intriguing. At a time when many are looking at finding residency for their elders and family members this is a odd reaction.
How would you feel if suddenly you were told that you had an Aunt, no one ever told you about, that was alive and had been living a an asylum? Then to find out that there is a very disturbing reason she was put there. She wanted more than what society demanded of a woman in those days. To step out of the rut, to buck the system and fight for your right as a woman was intolerable and she was sent to an asylum.
That of course is not the end of the story. As you are transported between the present and the past you cannot put the book down. It gains momentum and the short tale leaves you in an animated state of wanting to share your thoughts.
It isn't a long book but it is one that will be passed along to your fellow reading friends.
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(1 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
emmejo, July 19, 2010 (view all comments by emmejo)
When she was 16 Esme Lennox was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Over time and generations she stayed there, forgotten by all but her sister, who now suffers from Alzheimer's and can't properly communicate with anyone anymore.

But when the hospital closes Esme has to be moved, and Iris is contacted. Suddenly she is responsible for a Great-Aunt she never knew she had, and who is regarded as crazy, although not a danger to others.

I read and finished this the day I got it. I was just going to read a few pages and see what it was like, but I simply couldn't put it down! The characters are very well-constructed and full of little details that make them come alive. Every now and then the wildly changing viewpoints and skewed memories threw me for a loop, and a quick re-read was needed, but I enjoy a book that it takes brain power to keep up with. The plot is not very elaborate, but it has a simple beauty to it.

I highly enjoyed this book, and definitely recommend it to readers who like strong characters and lifelike character interaction.
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
Stephanie Patterson, June 24, 2008 (view all comments by Stephanie Patterson)
Iris, a woman struggling with her own business and a complicated personal life, is stunned when she gets a call from the local asylum telling her that her aunt Esme is about to be released after 61 years of confinement. Her grandmother, Kitty, beclouded by Alzheimers and living in a nursing home, has always portrayed herself as an only child.
The story of what happens when Iris and Esme meet and what they both learn about the past and the present is beautifully and compellingly told.
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(7 of 12 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

O'farrell, Maggie
Harvest Books
O'Farrell, Maggie
Historical - General
Family secrets
Domestic fiction
Psychological fiction
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8 x 5.31 in 0.54 lb

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Literature
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Family Life
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Featured Titles

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox Used Trade Paper
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Product details 256 pages Harvest Books - English 9780156033671 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , A gothic, intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth, "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" is a haunting look into one woman's tragic past.
"Synopsis" by ,
In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage-clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriends attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for more than sixty-one years.

Iriss grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esmes papers prove she is Kittys sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esmes face. 

Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But she's still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?

A gothic, intricate tale of family secrets, lost lives, and the freedom brought by truth, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox will haunt you long past its final page.

"Synopsis" by , Maggie O'Farrell's captivating and critically acclaimed gothic tale of family secrets and the irrepressible freedom that truth brings


Chic and independent, Iris Lockhart is tending to her vintage-clothing shop in Edinburgh (and evading her married boyfriend) when she receives a stunning phone call: her great-aunt Esme—whom she never knew existed—is being released from Cauldstone Hospital, where she has been locked away for more than sixty years. Iriss grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esmes papers prove she is Kittys sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her father in Esmes face. Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world—but she's still basically a stranger, a family member hidden away who will surely bring secrets with her when she leaves the ward. Moving expertly among the voices of Iris, Kitty, and Esme herself, Maggie O'Farrell reveals the story of Esme's tragic and haunting absence.

"Synopsis" by ,

"This haunting and extraordinarily engrossing novel--part gothic mystery, part tangled family drama--reminded me why I love reading in the first place: it's because a well-written book has the power to carry us away to a place we've never been but always suspected was there." — Carolyn Parkhurst, author of THE DOGS OF BABEL

"I found this actually unputdownable, written with charge and energy and a kind of compelling drive, a clarity and a gripping dramatic insidiousness reminiscent of classic writers like Rebecca West and Daphne Du Maurier." --Ali Smith, author of Hotel World and The Accidental

"Prickly, disturbing and delicious, a novel to gulp in a single sitting." — The Observer

"Like Sarah Waters or Douglas Kennedy [O’Farrell] displays a gift for storytelling that makes her novels almost ridiculously pleasurable to read." – The London Times

"Beneath the cool Edwardian detail of this elegantly written book lie the horrors of a Gothic novel." — The Guardian

"I would like to think that families only behave this way in books, but unfortunately betrayal, jealousy, and secrets are all too common in real life. It was a terrific book, I will be thinking about it for a long time." — Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife

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