Maggie O’ Farrell: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I’m really enjoying reading this at the moment. In fact I’m enjoying it so much that I want to string it out for as long as possible so that I don’t finish it. I love the idea of authors writing about people who have ended up in psychiatric hospitals in a way that restores their humanity.

Part of my psychological journey has been a critical look at the way that psychology and psychiatry blame the individual for having a “mental illness”. In fact there are a whole lot of factors at work in being ‘crazy’, from the intra-psychic to the inter-personal and the social. This is not to romanticise mental illness and say that psychiatric hospitals are evil places. It’s just an awareness of how psychology and psychiatry are caught up in the operations of power and powerlessness that often manifest in people’s lives spinning out of control.

One of my interests, which fits in with both literature and psychology, is that of the construction of subjectivity. When people have nervous breakdowns their subjectivity basically falls apart, and the process of recovery involves regaining a sense of agency or control over what has become uncontrollable. Currie talks about the process of “undoing the subject” as occurring in moments of self-doubt and anxiety.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to Esme Lennox, the spirited, unconventional and troubled young woman who is locked up in a mental asylum as a young girl and only released 60 years later.

I enjoyed this review.

And I really love O’ Farrell’s writing. She writes so simply but the effect is powerful, as in this short extract:

’I already told you,’ she said, holding his gaze. ‘Never’.
She felt him catch her wrist and she was surprised by the insistence, the power of his grip. ‘Let go,’ she said, stepping away from him. But he held on, fast. She struggled. ‘Let go!’ she said. ‘Do you want me to hit you again?’
He released her. ‘Wouldn’t mind,’ he drawled. As she walked away, she heard him call after her: ‘I’m going to invite you to tea.’
‘I won’t come,’ she threw back over her shoulder.
‘You damn well will. I’m going to get my mother to invite your mother. Then you’ll have to come.’
‘I wont!’
‘We’ve got a piano you could play …’

Taking the idea of stories from mental hospitals a bit further, I started looking around on the internet for some more. One site I found was called the ”experience project” and has some limited (but interesting) accounts about what it’s like to be on the inside. I think one of the fascinations about a book like Esme Lennox is that most of us are intrigued to know what it would be like to go a bit ‘crazy’ and land up in a mental hospital.

They tried to stick me in a room with a lil old lady who was wailing super loud, but I started bawling too, so they put me in with a goth girl instead. It just was a bad experience. Not a good enviroment. ….My mom found out i was in there and called me, but I told her I was fine, cuz I did not feel like talking to her, cuz she can’t understand. … The cops stuck me in the mental ward for hurting myself, cuz i cut my arms up.

Definitely a topic to come back to in a later blog.

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8 Responses to Maggie O’ Farrell: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

  1. qugrainne says:

    I really like “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” – but it was also very frightening. To have no control over being “in” or “out” would really put me over the edge – being the control freak I am.

    I have a fair amount of experience with mental institutions. My adopted son, when he feels totally overwhelmed and helpless about his life, tries to kill himself. I didn’t enter his life until he was in his late teens, so I can attest to the fact that there are “a whole lot of factors in being crazy.” My young man was never taught how to deal with anything (raised rather like a feral child), so when he is pressed to deal with too much, he decides to check out. I think we take a lot for granted when looking at our upbringing. Even a poor parent teaches you ways to cope with life through modeling, at the very least.

    So my experience with being on the inside is through him, and visiting him. When they unlock the door to let me out, I can’t tell you how fast I run to my car.

  2. Pete says:

    Qugrainne, I have almost finished the book now and it’s still very good but more disturbing. I know what you mean about wanting to just get out of institutions like that as fast as you can. When we used to have wardrounds in the lock-up wards I usually felt very uncontained (even though we were locked in) and almost a bit mad. (I suppose we’re all a bit mad sometimes.) I’m sorry to hear that your adopted son had such a difficult start to life but it sounds like he’s lucky to have your protective influence as well. Institutions can also be helpful. I read a good phrase from Clink Shrink yesterday, which she says in her work with inmates. “It gets better from here” can be quite comforting.

  3. verbivore says:

    I will have to check out Esme Lennox, sounds fascinating. I recently read The Bell Jar, which (I think) was one of the first fictional attempts to describe what it felt like to lose the kind of control you’re talking about. The other that comes to mind and one of the best pieces of fiction I read last year was Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – have you read either?

  4. Pete says:

    Hi Verbivore, have seen the film of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” but not read the book. Also not read “The Bell Jar” (duly added to the TBR list). Having finished the Esme Lennox book I should add that it gets quite disturbing. I don’t think “enjoy” would really be the right word to describe my reading experience. But it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

  5. verbivore says:

    Hi again, I’ve been meaning to see the film version of Cuckoo’s Nest because I think its one of those rare films that really captures the spirit and aesthetic of the novel. I know what you mean about “not enjoying” a book, yet somehow appreciating it at the same time. I had that experience with Martin Amis’s House of Meetings (very dark, but just incredible). I am interested in fictional representations of mental illness, so I will definitely put Esme Lennox on my list.

  6. adevotedreader says:

    I couldn’t put The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox down, although I found it a harrowing experience. On the strength of Maggie O’Farrell’s writing, I then read her three earlier novels which were equally well written and emotionally affecting, particularly After You’d Gone. It will be interesting to see what she does in her next novel (assuming she writes one).

  7. seachanges says:

    I absolutely loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and found it spell-binding: it is incredible how Maggie O’Farrell keeps you hooked until you get to the very end of the book. She has an incredible way of evoking what that experience must have been like, it made me shiver. Her debut novel After you’d gone is similarly gripping and disturbing. A great review!

  8. Pete says:

    devotedreader – I’m also very keen to read her earier novels and, like you, I’m very interested to see what she tackles next.

    seachanges – Hi, I think spell-binding is a good way to put it. Her narrative style is so evocative that I was moved by just the first few pages.

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