Published: 24th October 2007
Genre: General Fiction
Trigger warnings: Drugs, rape, mental health discrimination
In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital – where she has been locked away for over sixty years. Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face.
Esme has been labelled harmless – sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But Esme’s still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit?
Imagine a collection of photographs or mementos that represent the significant events of your life; only they are all jumbled up and missing crucial details. This book is the very reflection of that idea, challenging the reader to join the dots that are scattered throughout its unique narrative and piece together the elusive facts lying at the centre of a vast whirlpool of deliberately vague components.
To say that this was an unusual read would be understatement, as the storytelling is just as abstract as that description suggests. It will certainly divide opinion, with a lack of development in some areas making it occasionally difficult to grasp as it switches frequently between different timelines and perspectives, yet it is actually quite clever and there is an emotional impact to be found at the end.
Iris lives alone, occupied only by her vintage clothing business and an ongoing romance with a married man, but then out of nowhere she receives a series of curious phone calls about a Euphemia Lennox. After pressing for further information, she finds that Euphemia – known as Esme – is her great aunt, who has spent over sixty years of her life in a psychiatric hospital.
The hospital is set to close down and so is finally allowing Esme to leave, and Iris is named as the person responsible for her future arrangements. Iris is shocked, as her grandmother Kitty had always said that she had no brothers or sisters, but attempts to find any alternative accommodation are unsuccessful and so she allows Esme to stay with her.
It is the same house where Esme lived when she was a child, a time when her aloofness and refusal to follow social norms often angered her parents, and Iris is wary of her. After all, she has spent most of her life locked away and apparently considered too unstable to be released until now. She also carries a number of secrets that could change everything Iris knows about her life.
Among the various misshapen strands of this story, some interesting topics are explored. The way Esme is misunderstood as a child alludes to how attitudes were at the time and the lengths people of a certain status would go to protect their reputation, with keeping secrets being more convenient when the truth is far more damaging. Then we have the stigmatising of mental health as a whole, which is depressing to read but effectively captured by the author.
What makes it tricky to follow at times is how it repeatedly alternates between the four different points of view; two in the present and two in the past. It is told primarily in the third person with Esme featuring in both timelines, before her admittance to Cauldstone hospital and then upon her release. As a character Esme has something of a timeless quality, as though she does not age over the course of the book, and the thoughtful presence she carries in the present is a hint towards a deeper meaning.
There is also a large focus on Iris, who is indecisive by nature and finds her life at an unwelcome crossroads. She has obvious flaws but also some redeeming features, especially the duty of care she feels towards Esme as their relationship gradually develops and an unexpected connection emerges between them. The only issue with the way Iris was written was that the sections about her backstory were lacking in substance.
The last and perhaps most intriguing narrative is the excerpts from Kitty’s diary, which – in a roundabout way – allow the reader to build a picture of what really happened with Elise and the consequences of those events. They are told in short snippets, giving small details away but cutting off before anything important can be explicitly stated, just to keep you in the dark. It is an original and somewhat exasperating mode of storytelling, but it all makes more sense at the end.
One of the other quirky things about this book is that for so long it is unclear where the plot is actually going, and as the end was approaching I was still wondering if something dramatic would happen. However, the outcome is much more subtle as it does irrefutably unravel with good literary skill, yet at the same serene pace and tone as everything that had gone before.
Where the format does suffer a little is in the development of supporting characters such as Alex and Luke. We at least get to know a bit about Alex and his complex relationship to Iris, although his disparaging remarks about Esme make him rather problematic. As for Luke, the whole sub-plot of his extramarital affair with Iris did not lead to anything important and just felt unnecessary.
It does not appear in the story too much, but Cauldstone hospital has the feel of an unsympathetic and oppressive institution, and the moment where Esme discovers early on in her stay that she is not going to be allowed to leave is extremely chilling. As for her home, where Iris lives in the present, the contrast between the two timelines is reflected in Esme by the fact the world she has returned to is much different to the one she left all those years earlier.
The writing is very minimalistic, and the best thing about it was that there is so little exposition, leaving the reader to work out a lot of the finer points of the story for themselves. This is most notably the case towards what is a rather abrupt ending, as Iris learns of her family’s history and all the cryptic words of Esme and Kitty finally make sense.
Overall, this is a most curious book which stands out for its tightly spun narrative and underlying coverage of sensitive themes. Esme is an enigmatic character, and at the same time compelling, as her sad story is brought to a hopeful conclusion. There are some issues and it will absolutely not be everyone’s cup of tea, but on the other hand there are many things here to appreciate.
Now a household name after winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction for Hamnet in 2020, Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine in Northern Ireland and went on to study English Literature at Cambridge University. While pursuing a career as a novelist, she has also worked as a journalist in London and Hong Kong, and as a creative writing instructor at two UK universities.
Her first novel was After You’d Gone in 2000, which won the Betty Trask Award. Since then, she has received considerable acclaim for My Lover’s Lover, The Distance Between Us, The Hand That First Held Mine, Instructions For A Heatwave, and This Must Be The Place. Her Women’s Prize winner Hamnet is a retelling of the life of William Shakespeare’s son who died at the age of 11.
A really strange book, but one that definitely comes together and packs a punch when you get to the end. The concept and manner of storytelling was a brave and inventive choice from the author, but she just about made it work.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5