The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxBook Review
Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author:  Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Headline Review
Released: May 17, 2007
Pages: 277
ISBN-10: 9780755334803
ISBN-13: 978-0753308446
Stars:  3.5

I have a been a fan of contemporary British novelist Maggie O’Farrell since I read her gorgeous novel After You’d Gone (2000 – winner of the Betty Trask prize) quite a few years ago, followed by the equally charming and poignant, The Distance Between Us (2004 – winner of the Somerset Maugham award).  Her prose is exquisite and she writes about the relationships between sisters, loss and the psychological impact of loss with total truth and conviction.

I’m behind on reading her most recent works but finished reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) a little over a week ago.  “O’Farrell’s fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters’ inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.”  The story investigates an appalling chapter in Britain’s history, the practice of disposing of “difficult” women by sending them to psychiatric institutions.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reads like you’re watching a film flashing back and forth between the 1930s and the 1990s.  It is the compelling tale of two sisters, Esme and Kitty, and Kitty’s granddaughter Iris, who suddenly finds herself introduced to a great aunt she never knew she had and for whom she wants no responsibility, and who subsequently unravels the Lennox family’s long hidden secrets.  The story is told without chapters and morphs back and forth between Esme Lennox’s childhood in 1930s Edinburgh and Iris Lockhart’s present as a single woman who owns a vintage clothing shop, is carrying on an affair with a married man named Luke, and who harbors her own secrets about her relationship with her step-brother Alex.

Beautifully written in the present tense with an obvious love of language – many of the sections in this story start with a dash and are like pieces of a story cut out of another book and carefully pasted into this one in sequence – O’Farrell paints her settings with precise brush strokes of carefully chosen words, each one in its place to achieve maximum advantage.

At the beginning of Esme’s story, she and her family live in colonial Bombay. We soon realize that Esme is a precocious child, a dreamer who sees the world with very different eyes than those of her sister Kitty.  Esme is inquisitive and stubborn with a vivid fantasy life (she can hear trees crying) but has been labeled “impossible, disobedient, unteachable, a liar…”  Her mother ties her to a chair at dinner so that she won’t slip under the table to study all of the strange and interesting things going on beneath it.  In contrast, Kitty, who is six years older than Esme, is a normal, well-behaved girl who does what she’s told.  We learn that their baby brother Hugo and “ayah” Jamila died of typhoid at the same time when they were girls, an event which resulted in their father moving the family to Edinburgh.

In the 1990s, Iris is telephoned by a hospital official who declares that she is the contact family member of one Euphemia Esme Lennox, the sister that she didn’t know that her grandmother Kitty – currently living with Alzheimer’s – had.  Esme has been locked up in a psychiatric asylum for over 60 years and now the facility is closing down and its patients have to be relocated.  When suitable accommodations can’t be found, Iris ends up taking Esme (diagnosed with bipolar disorder) in to live with her in the house that was once owned by Esme’s father and gradually a sad and shocking mystery unfolds as the two women get to know each other.

We discover that Esme had been raped by a young man (Jamie Dalziel) whose parents her family had known, a man who was meant to court Kitty but who ended up preferring Esme’s direct but quirky personality instead.  Esme didn’t know she was pregnant when her parents, finally fed up with her tantrums and unpredictable behaviour, decided to have her committed to Cauldstone.  Months later, in the psychiatric hospital, Esme gives birth to a baby boy who she is allowed to hold for a few seconds before he is violently snatched away in an altercation that ends up with a distraught Esme in restraints.

In the meantime, in the flashbacks of Kitty’s life, we learn that she married a man named Duncan who was also a virgin and so uncomfortable and unknowledgeable about sex, that they never consummated their union.  One day Kitty goes to the hospital to visit Esme, and although she never actually sees her, she finds out about her baby.  Kitty, who wants a child so badly but can’t have one with her husband, asks her father for permission to raise Esme’s son and concocts a scheme to go south for a few months to “have a baby.”

Theirs is a slow burning, simple but cruel tale with no real climax.  All of the family secrets come undone when one day Iris takes Esme to see Kitty in the hospital she’s committed to, and instead of a proper denoument, the story ends abruptly and we are left to wonder exactly what happened between Esme and Kitty while they were alone together and Iris and Alex were outside in the car sharing their own revelation.  While I took pleasure in reading the prose in this tragic story, and O’Farrell maintained an elevated level of tension throughout, the ending was unsatisfactory and just a bit too abstract for my full appreciation.

This will not, however, deter me from reading O’Farrell’s more recent work, The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the 2010 Costa novel award, and Instructions For A Heatwave (available February 28, 2013) because I enjoy literary psychological suspense and Maggie O’Farrell is a master.

Start Over Again by Emily Maguire

Book Review
Title: Start Over Again
Author: Emily Maguire
Publisher: Emily Maguire
Released: 2010
Pages: 230
ISBN-10: 0956680100
ISBN-13: 978-0956680105
Stars: 4.5

Emily Maguire is a beautiful young woman, a gifted singer-songwriter, a skilled maker of goat’s cheese, a person of above average intelligence, and a deeply spiritual human being who knows what it feels like to go insane. Emily Maguire has bipolar disorder, but rather than allowing it to disable her, she has chosen to see it as enabling her to be who she really is, even though it means she has to start over again after every breakdown.

Start Over Again is the title of Emily’s first book: a combination brief autobiography/collection of lyrics, poetry, prose and journal entries that tell the story of her very challenging but extremely interesting and ultimately rewarding young life, from 1991 (age 16) to the present (age 35). In only five short years, Emily has morphed from living on disability in London and having no idea about what to do with her life, to a woman who lived in a tin & potato sack shack in the Sunshine Coast of Australia with her lover, to a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter who has played the Royal Albert Hall and whose songs have been featured on BBC Radio 2.

I am a fan of Emily Maguire’s thoughtful lyrics and sun-kissed, sea-breezed, soothing vocals and ever since I first heard her song “Keep Walking” in 2008, I couldn’t help but adore her. With three albums to her credit, including A Stranger Place, Keep Walking and Believer, and tours across the UK with such prestigious and well known artists as Don McLean, Glenn Tillbrook & Roddy Frame, Emily has evolved from a young woman afflicted with intense fibromyalgia (resulting from a car crash when she was still a teenager) and manic depression into an eloquent, exquisite and valiant artist who has chosen to allow the world to take a look inside her head and to be an advocate for those too afraid to share their voice.

“It’s like trying to make tea when your tripping
Or trying to run in a dream
I feel like the face in the painting The Scream”

Emily’s courage in publishing this work is colossal. Start Over Again is an honest, poignant, often painful, but amazingly hopeful and positive message to anyone who suffers from depression or a mood/personality disorder. It is okay to acknowledge your feelings – to own them – to learn how to manage them and to take responsibility for your own health & wellness without being labeled as someone who is somehow deficient, less than, or broken.

As someone who suffers from episodes of depression and who comes from a family with a history of clinical depression, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s, and an inability to cope with significant stress, I have enormous empathy for Emily. I understand all too well what it feels like to wonder if you’re going mad and whether fighting to stay grounded and self-composed in this difficult but beautiful world is worth the significant effort. I choked back tears while reading Emily’s Foreward and found myself feeling deeply moved and reflective about my own journey.

Emily, who finds comfort in Buddhism, will give you hope when you read her story. She will reinforce the fact that being different from what society perceives as “normal” is something to be embraced rather than ashamed of. Emily’s willingness to open up about her drug use, mood management, and her stay in a mental hospital will undoubtedly encourage her readers to look at people they know who deal with similar issues in a whole new light. It’s so true that “suffering is something we love to watch from a distance.” But the truth is that none of us can make it through this life without help of some kind and a lot of love.

3 Jan 2010
I can buy
So many things
That I don’t need
But only feed
My desire
To be
Other than who I am
Sitting if I stand
Taller if I’m short
Wiser if I’ve bought
Too many things
That I don’t need
To satisfy this wrathful greed
The hungry ghost inside my head
Who picks my mind
Until I bled
Until I buy some other thing
To close the cut for just a blink
Of an eye then open just a chink
Enough to let the demon out
To dance and rant and scream and shout
Don’t think that you can shut the door
When all you want you want is more”

After reading Start Over Again you will hear Emily Maguire’s lyrics with different ears and her songs will become infinitely more meaningful. She hasn’t professed to have found the answer to her problems, but she’s absolutely willing to keep walking and persevere through her hours of darkness. She is a revelation.

Emily Maguire Starts Over Again

This morning I received this newsletter from English singer-songwriter Emily Maguire, whom I adore.

“Hi everyone,

As promised, I can now tell you about the writing project I’ve been working on these past few months.

I’ve written a book called ‘Start Over Again’. It’s based on the verses of that song (from my album ‘Believer’) and is a collection of poetry, prose, song-lyrics and some very personal diary entries. It tells the real story behind my songs…

You might have heard me talking about it yesterday morning on Radio 2. If you want to know more, click here. The book is available now to order from Amazon or direct from Shaktu Records.

Hope all’s well in your world.

With best wishes,


I have been so inspired by the fact that the very brave and beautiful Emily has just revealed to the world that she suffers from bipolar disorder and she has written this book, Start Over Again about her experiences, that I’ve been sharing it with my entire social network.

Everyone has dealt with depression at some point or another and I have several friends who have bipolar disorder – some who are willing to talk about it – and others who are not. While I am not bipolar, I am very emotional, have suffered with depression, lacked the self-confidence to manifest my dreams, and can’t deal with a lot of stress very well any more. When I’m stressed out, I can’t sleep and we all know how hard it is to function properly when we don’t sleep well.

I’m someone who is not afraid to talk about most things, but many people are and they need the kind of inspiration and encouragement that someone like Emily can provide.

One of the things I struggle with most is trying to not put out negative thoughts and words in public and thereby manifesting more negativity into my life (The Law of Attraction scares the hell out of me sometimes!). I’m not an optimist by nature and I have to work hard at seeing the light in a dark situation.

We should concentrate on taking care of ourselves first and then focus on what it is that we truly want to do. I know that my focus has been really scattered for a while now and I have to work extra hard at keeping it on track just to get the things accomplished that I need to do in a week. I can’t imagine how hard Emily’s struggle has been (or any of my friends who have bipolar disorder) and I can’t wait to read her book because I think it will be extremely inspirational.

These are the lyrics to Emily’s song Start Over Again from her latest album, Believer:

(Emily Maguire)

Caught in the muddy waters, falling down
If I could breathe then I would drown
I’m fifteen, I feel older than God
I got dreams and a hole in my heart

And he said
Go slow, be kind, be wise
Start over again

Out of the muddy waters, I come round
I said I’m off to London town
My love is strong, the years roll by
But now it’s gone in the blink of an eye

And he said
Go slow, you need time, be wise
Start over again

Thrown in the muddy waters, I come down
And you were waiting there on the ground
And then you put your hand in mine
You put your heart on the line

And you said
We’ll go slow, you need time, be mine
And start over again

So pour on the muddy waters, I won’t drown
I’ll be walking a hilltop town
And I will make the most of time
And someday to a child of mine

Well I’ll say
Go slow, be kind, be wise
Start over again, just start over again

If you haven’t already discovered this amazing and talented woman and her gorgeous pop/folk music, drop by her Facebook page to see her and listen for yourself.