Tuesday 12 June 2007

Unreckoned Responsibility

Poor Maggie O'Farrell. Little did she know, in penning The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, that the weight of the last 50 years of literature was on her shoulders. As I detailed in a previous post, I regard modern literature with some suspicion, preferring the tried and true waters of 1900-1950. Against my better judgement, perhaps, I went to borders and purchased The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, based entirely on the review given by Lynne over on dovegreyreader. Waiting inside was not merely a novel, but the determining factors in whether or not I'd continue to give 2007 a chance, in the literary stakes.

Verdict : let's not rule out the 21st century just yet.

Without giving too much away, O'Farrell's novel documents the release of Esme Lennox from a psychiatric unit, into the care of great-niece Iris, who didn't know Esme existed. The novel flits between this present day scenario, and the past events, focalised either through narrative, Esme's recollections, or the uncertain memories of Kitty, Esme's sister, now in hospital with Alzheimer's.

It is the last of these methods which I found most demonstrated O'Farrell's talent - the driftings of imprecise thoughts are
presented so realistically, offering, in these sections, a discourse neither unified nor wholly disjointed. The clues are all there, and amalgamate towards a final comprehension of the history leading to Esme's incarceration. Though intelligently written, one of the things I'd have to put in the 'cons' column is this reliance upon detective-fictionesque build up of clues, red herrings, and so forth. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is about so much more than deducing the ending, that this structure undermined the content a little. Esme is a wonderful character, as is Kitty - Iris is never quite as satisfactory, probably because of the inevitable, but ultimately unsatisfying, inclusions of love interests. Luke could have been cut from the novel without any great loss, though Elle might not have contributed their comment to the back of my paperback. Oh, and I still don't like the use of present tense in novels. When did that come in? Probably before I was born. But I don't want any of these quibbles to detract from the fact that this is a hugely enjoyable, cleverly written work.

So... on which path will my reading now embark? A happy compromise, methinks. There's little sense in only reading books out in the past few months, when there is such a heritage of literature to be explored - but I suppose being alive doesn't necessarily equate with being unreadable, where authors are concerned(!)


  1. This was sounding as though it's a book I'd like to read until you mentioned it's written in the present tense. I have such difficulty with this style of writing. I'll have to have a look though.

  2. I hope you didn't draw your inspiration from Atlas for your sketch today. But no, I think you're probably too well-informed for that.

  3. Phew thank goodness for that... I think. I haven't slept for weeks waiting on this review Simon and now I just think I might be able to rest easy just a fraction, not a lot, just a little bit.So what's next? Not sure I can cope with the responsibility of the next recommend, someone else's turn!

  4. OK Simon - Enduring Love by Ian McEwan next please!! If I can do it so can you.....

  5. Aha, Elaine, already read it! I decided to read it before I saw the film a couple of years ago - and was quite impressed. In fact, I've read Atonement and Saturday as well - very good and mediocre, respectively. Hope you got my email a while ago?

  6. We can't let him go off the boil or he'll be right back with all that 1930's stuff again, what about...oh yes...what about The Woman in Black by Susan Hill?


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