Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Anagrams of our antecedents

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - Maggie O'Farrell

Rating 5/5

Read for the Winter Reading Challenge

I nearly didn't buy this book being put off by the title which evoked memories of the film The Prestige. The only magic here though is beautiful writing and unforgettable characters.

The story revolves around 3 women. Esme who has been shut away in a psychiatric unit for nearly 60 years. Her sister Kitty who is in a nursing home slowly losing the fight with Alzheimers and Iris, Kitty's granddaughter.

The three women have very distinct voices and completely caught me up in their stories, their feelings and their ideas. Kitty's stream of consciousness, mixing past and present is particularly effective.

At the heart of the story is a great betrayal that left me shocked and heartbroken. It is also the exploration of how the past effects the present and how our heritage effects the choices we make.

"We are all, Esme decided, just vessels through which identities pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits, then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents."

The idea that nothing really changes was an interesting one. Esme is shut away by her family because she is unconventional. Years later Iris seems to be free to live her life as unconventionally as she wishes but she is equally trapped. Denying the love she feels through fear of what others will think.

The writing was beautiful and I forced myself to read slowly and savour it. The characters are wonderful and engaging and they stayed with me long after I had finished the book. I wanted to know what happened to them and what choices they made after the disturbing final act.

It is definitely a book I will read again and again.


  1. It's great to read your review Alix, I read that book last year and really enjoyed it as well.

  2. I've fought shy of this book as a member of one of my reading groups who works in Social Services was scathing about the setting. But, I've read several good postings about it over the past couple of weeks and I actually trust you all more than her, so I'm going to give it a go.

  3. Beccy - Thanks, glad you enjoyed it too.
    Table Talk - I really hope you like it. I thought Esme was such a fascinating character. I'm not sure if the setting is accurate or not but I found it easy to believe.

  4. I was so struck by the sentence 'We begin in the world as anagrams of our antecedents' that I had to mark it in the book to check later in google. (I couldn't put the book down to check it there and then.) Sure enough others have mentioned the same phrase. What a remarkable book and the characters linger and needle in my mind.I recall visiting a local 'mental hospital' as a teenager in the 60s and wondering about the characters we saw there. How many were there through misinterpretation of their acts and then institutionalised? That hospital has now closed and the patients live locally, still wrapped up in the world they created to keep themselves safe I think.

  5. Janegirl - yes me too. These characters are still lingering in my mind, it's truly wonderful book.

  6. I found it odd that the author used the word "ANAGRAMS" rather than the word "AMALGAMS" which I see as more fitting here.
    See dictionary definitions for both words.

  7. Lexx - I see your point but I think anagrams works well as in the rearranging of different parts of our parents into us. Also I think most people are familiar with the word anagrams and would get the reference where as amalgams is less common.


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