Now, I don’t know if you follow Twitter or not, but I love it for following people in the publishing industry. It keeps me up to date with what’s going on, what awards are coming up and especially what books are coming out. There is one book in particular that seems to have a lot of editors, publicists and readers excited: Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, which is out 28th February. Honestly, the number of people who are going mad for the proof copy is insane and I was curious to know who this author is and why her writing is so wonderful; so I randomly selected The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and began to read with no idea what the story was about and with no expectations other than ‘this author is good’.
The story revolves around four main narratives: Esme as an adult in a mental institution, who often meditates on her childhood and the events leading to her institutionalisation; Iris, Esme’s great-neice, who has no idea Esme Lennox ever existed, and Kitty, Esme’s elder sister who is plagued with dementia and whose narrative is broken, fragmented and often confused.
Iris receives a phone call from the mental institution and is told that not only does she have a great-aunt she never knew existed, the institution is closing and, as the only living and mentally capable family member left, it is her responsibility to find Esme somewhere to live. This woman is an unknown quantity: she has spent well over sixty years in an institution for reasons that, with some research, Iris believes to be pinned on a few trivial events.
Esme, on the other hand, knows better and her narrative is a constant drip of information that goes more than half way to explaining why she ends up in an institution. A mix of tragedy, misunderstanding, lack of communication in the family unit and a little natural strangeness causes Esme to be locked up for a lifetime, subjected to restraint, drugging and electro-treatment. It is incredibly sad to realise how she is treated after some of the traumatic events she experiences; she is never able to fully explain or purge herself of the natural emotions that come from these.
Whether or not Esme is truly insane is up for discussion and purposefully so. The events that trigger her admittance could cause severe psychological damage that’s for sure, but the novel does not go over board in its pity. The situation is what it is and there is a definite atmosphere of ‘sweep it under the carpet’. Maggie O’Farrell’s use of language and description is detailed and vague at the same time – there are enough clues to know what is going on but it makes you work to understand it. The lack of chapters also make it a curious read: there are no mini stories with a cliffhanger ending; the narrative just flows and breaks as it changes perspective or period of time.
It’s a brilliant read. There are many unexpected moments within the novel and one in particular made me sigh thinking ‘oh another one of *those* stories’ but it’s dealt in such a way that is unique to anything I have read and fits well within the story. It’s a novel of twists and turns, and though it’s not a detective story in itself, it makes you into the detective: is Esme mad? What will Iris do? Who is at fault? It’s a fascinating journey into the mind of a so-called schizophrenic and it makes me very excited for Instructions for a Heatwave later this month. (Available from Waterstones and Amazon on pre-order).