Sibling rivalries

<strong>The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox</strong>

Maggie O'Farrell <em>Headline Review, 245pp, £14

In Maggie O'Farrell's novels, the spaces that exist between people are almost as important as the characters themselves. Complex relationships and the long shadows they cast are the bedrock of her mysterious, multi-layered tales. Since her award-winning debut, After You'd Gone (2000), she has become adept at weaving labyrinthine plots into which she carefully drip-feeds clues and half-truths. It isn't always necessary to read between the lines, but it helps.

O'Farrell's last novel, The Distance Between Us (2004), was in many ways a precursor to The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Both books examine questions of identity and alienation, filtered through dysfunctional families, sibling rivalry and characters' linked pasts. Tragedy, always on standby in The Distance Between Us, plays a central role in her new novel, sweeping us backwards and forwards in time between the 1930s and the present day.

Esme Lennox's roots are in colonial India, where she and her sister, Kitty, who is six years older, were born. When their baby brother dies from typhoid fever, the family returns home to live with the children's paternal grandmother in Edinburgh, and it is there that Esme, who has always been a free spirit, rebels against the stifling conformity of their new lives. The family interprets her rebelliousness and volatility as mental instability, and her fierce intelligence as a threat. Kitty - attractive, disciplined and determined to marry well - is her mother's favourite, and although the sisters have always been inseparable, Kitty begins to sense that Esme possesses a natural enchantment for the opposite sex that she will never acquire. Yet Esme has no interest in sex or marriage, and when the spoilt charmer whom Kitty is determined to win takes more interest in Esme, it is Kitty's jealous betrayals which seal her sister's fate. Esme, already in disgrace with her family, is raped by the boy at a New Year's Eve party. Afraid to tell anyone, she spirals into a temporary breakdown, providing her parents with the perfect excuse to send her away. At the age of 16, Esme is incarcerated in the local asylum, and the family in effect airbrushes her out of its lives.

Sixty-one years later, Iris Lockhart, who owns a vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh's Old Town, receives a phone call from that same asylum (which is about to close down), informing her about the imminent release of a great-aunt she didn't know she had. Iris has secrets and problems of her own. She is having an affair with a married man, Luke, though she is closer to her stepbrother, Alex, than she would ever admit. Her father died when she was still a child, and Alex is the son of her mother's lover who replaced him. Kitty - who holds the key to Esme's disappearance - is Iris's grandmother, but is now in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer's. At first resistant even to visiting Esme, Iris finds herself drawn to the vulnerability and resilience of the woman, and against her better judgement sets out to help her and to unravel the truth.

Esme is one of O'Farrell's most compelling creations. Born at the wrong time in the wrong place, she becomes both victim and scapegoat, and while we may need to suspend disbelief about her astuteness after 60 years of internment, O'Farrell convincingly portrays the torment and bewilderment of her inner world. The shocking secret at the heart of her story unfolds from three viewpoints - those of Esme, Iris and the first-person fragments of Kitty's memories from childhood, adolescence and her eventual loveless marriage. The memories assemble themselves into a confessional that gathers the missing strands of a lost life.

The haunting final pages are among the finest O'Farrell has ever written. This, the most satisfying and least mannered of her novels, marks a significant leap forward both in narrative precision and imaginative skill.

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights