This is a tragic story, full of twists and revelations, made all the more sad as the story’s inspiration comes from historical records. In the 1930s era women could be locked in an insane asylum just for wandering off on long walks, or for keeping their hair long. Your liberty was at the whim of your parents or husband.
The story starts in Scotland when two sisters are sitting at a dance. It’s but a glimpse of two important characters. Then the detailed background story begins in India where these same two sisters are young; you are allowed a look into their early lives and how they interact with their parents. There is a baby brother born, Hugo, and Esme loves to play with him. While Kitty is the more serious of the two and minds the rules, Esme is the polar opposite. She makes excuses to leave her tutoring session and wanders off to visit her little brother. She walks barefooted to the horror of her prim and proper mother, she won’t be molded into the quiet citizen her mother desires her to be. I like her.
The story flashes between the girl’s childhood in India, then their move to Scotland and then advances to present day with Kitty’s granddaughter Iris.
Iris is a single young woman who owns a vintage clothing shop. She is quite possibly in love with her step brother Alex. It’s not as creepy as it sounds when you read their back story. Her life turns on end when a phone call reveals there is an elderly aunt who has been housed at an asylum for over 60 years, and Iris is the family contact. She’s never heard of Esme Lennox. Iris visits her Alzheimer afflicted grandmother, Kitty Lockhart, who is in and out of hazy thought but does confirm Esme is her sister. So what does Iris do now? Move a possibly crazed old woman, a stranger, into her flat? More importantly, why was Esme’s existence kept a secret all these years.
Now we flashback to Kitty and Esme Lennox as teenagers who are being introduced to the social circle. Kitty is the older sister and all about propriety and appearance. Esme is not confined to conventional social mores and continues to upset her parents. Surprisingly, the young man they hoped would be interested in Kitty is actually besotted with Esme. Later events will change everything in Esme’s life.
I am upset for Esme that her life was stolen from her. For no good reason she is swept out of her parents’ home at the age of 16 and then left to rot in an asylum. She is asked at one point how long it was since she had last seen her sister. Her reply: “Sixty-one years, five months and 6 days” and fact is, if the hospital had not been closing down, she would have ended her days there.
This is the second book I have read by this author and I like this one as much as the first. It’s sad and it leaves you with much to think about. I like having some things unresolved where you think about potential outcomes. Excellent writing. Well done Ms. O’Farrell.
A quote that sums up the lives of the patients…and when you ponder it, the everyday rituals we all move through.
“It is always the meaningless tasks that endure: the washing, the cooking, the clearing, the cleaning. Never anything majestic or significant, just the tiny rituals that hold together the seams of life.”
This is another paragraph I like. Esme is reflecting on Iris sitting on the beach. It’s perfect – as someone who enjoys genealogy this last part really spoke to me, thinking about my ancestors.
“From all her family – her and Kitty and Hugo and all the other babies and her parents – from all of them, there is only this girl. She is the only one left. They have all narrowed down to this black-haired girl sitting on the sand, who has no idea that her hands and her eyes and the tilt of her head and the fall of her hair belong to Esme’s mother.
We are all, Esme decides, just vessels through which identities are pass: we are lent features, gestures, habits then we hand them on. Nothing is our own. We begin the world as anagrams of our ancestors.” I think that was a marvelous bit of prose.
I want to take Esme out for a cream tea. She was cheated out of so much in life and her remaining days ought to filled with fun things, enjoyable things. It would never make up for all she’s lost.
Stay tuned for more book reviews on Maggie O’Farrell. Happy to have come across her latest book as this was my introduction to her writing.
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