More than 60 years ago, Esme Lennox was locked away in a mental institution. She has never stepped outside its gates, never heard from her family. When the institution must close, the administrators contact her great-niece, Iris Lockhart, to find out what should be done with her. Iris has never even heard of Esme, and the only relative alive who would remember her, Esme’s sister and Iris’s grandmother, now has Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home. All Iris can find out about Esme’s original institutionalization is that she was 16 years old at the time, that she insisted on keeping her hair long, and that her parents reported that they found her dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother’s clothes. As the story unfolds, we learn why the apparently sane Esme was locked away and why she was kept a secret for so long.
I very much enjoyed this book. It reminded me of the work of Barbara Vine, which so often deals with family secrets. Author Maggie O’Farrell tells the story from three perspectives, that of Iris, of Esme, and of Iris’s grandmother, Kitty. Only Kitty’s story is told in the first person, and the Alzheimer’s has made her thought process inscrutable but filled with hints about what she has been hiding. In general, O’Farrell plays fair with her revelations–none of the discoveries are a complete shock because there are plenty of clues, but they also aren’t completely predictable. There is one twist toward the end that requires us to accept a level of ignorance on the part of one character that I thought was completely unbelievable, but overall the characters’ actions made sense, even if it was a perverted sort of sense.
The biggest weakness in the book is that Iris herself is not terribly interesting, which is a shame because her storyline is one that could raise this book above being all about how much better off women are today than in the past, when free-spirited women could not truly be free. The reality is that Iris has used her own freedom as a 21st-century woman to lock herself into relationships that are no good for her. Is Iris unable to be in a stable relationship because societal restrictions keep her from being with the one she belongs with? Or is it because she has misused her freedom to overstep bounds that do belong there? It’s an interesting question, but Esme’s story overshadows Iris’s throughout the book, and much of the time Iris’s story seems like a not very interesting digression.
This is a very quick read and well worth looking for if you like this kind of thing.