It was once possible to commit difficult, rebellious and unconventional women to the asylum with only a GP’s signature. Not way back in the distant past either. This was Britain and it was practice until the 1950’s.  The women, thus interred, were released only when the institutions closed down in the 1990’s. Regrettable social history which Maggie O’Farrell uses to great effect in her 4th novel. (Her 1st written by the way – she spent 10 years perfecting it!)

Esme is institutionalised in the 1930’s for …. no, for that would be giving it away …. is released in the 1990’s when her asylum is closed. A series of (un)fortunate events brings her to the home of her grandniece, Iris; a businesswoman with a complicated love life; a woman who, had she lived in Esme’s time would without a shadow of a doubt have met the same fate. Iris’s story isn’t the fascinating one, however, and, at times, the contrast between her opportunities and Esme’s is just too obvious. The real strength of the novel lies in the layers of Esme’s story which gradually unfolds through the narrative voices of both Esme and her sister, Kitty. Kitty, now suffering from advanced Alzheimers, can’t remember what she had for her last meal, although she does remember, with startling clarity, the events of 60 years ago, which led her to betray her sister …. The secrets are revealed, slowly but surely, in Kitty’s fractured and disjointed voice, although she only tells us the details which portray her in a light softer than harsh reality …. Esme provides the bitter detail.

And yet I found myself wondering whether Esme’s narration too is unreliable – not in a way which detracts from the injustice served her, but enough to wonder whether she really did have bipolar tendencies, which would have been recognised and treated in a different age. There are enough dubious incidents throughout her childhood to merit the question. Her surprising self-possession and focus upon release are also quite disturbing.  Evidence of a real problem or a self-fulfilling prophecy?

There’s no doubt that Maggie O’Farrell has written a powerful, outrage-inspiring and disturbing book. Esme’s stolen life is upsetting. So too, the society of the 1930’s. As is the cavalier attitude of the 1990’s social services. These threads of outrage and sadness run throughout the novel, from the first page to the last. And that ending achieves something I would have thought impossible. It’s poignant and manages to upset me even more than before!

This is an excellent book group read. It’s not often that a page-turner inspires such a wealth of discussion. My group members also related the stories of those they knew who had been similarly affected by these draconian social policies. (And not all the victims were female ….) A number of group members took the book away for a reread. Now that they know what happens, they want to reread and savour …. which is as good as recommendation as there can be and an endorsement that O’Farrell’s 10 years were years well-spent!


P.S  Let’s hear it for the 2007 Good Housekeeping Novel of the Year!

P.P.S  Recommended for those who loved this, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture.