Poppy Peacock from Poppy Peacock Pens
The first of my milestone reads – like many others I suspect - was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee which I studied at O'level; it didn't just widen my cultural horizons, it was my literary awakening to appreciate the power of literature and delights of rounded characters and a compelling story. But that awakening was short lived. While I still marvelled at the occasional gem, over the next twenty years a busy life often led to lighter reads – still very entertaining and offering great escapism – but with far less literary impact; merely providing a balance to the heavier documentation my career demanded.
In 2007 - after 3 years of severe illness which led to a much impaired cognitive ability - I joined a new book group in the hope participation would help my rehabilitation: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox was our second choice. Although O'Farrell's fourth novel, it was the first of hers I’d read and I was completely blown away - just like with To Kill a Mockingbird - both culturally and literarily.
Esme's tragic story resonated from my nursing days when the so called Care in the Community campaign rolled out and people who had spent a lifetime in Institutions were being discharged; the general aim – certainly not care driven – a more cost-effective way of helping people with mental health problems and physical disabilities. Sadly - slight understatement but I'm trying not to lapse into the incandescent rant tales like that of Esme spur on - the harsh reality was often far from ideal.
Reading Esme's life and fate made the group discuss and question why these people - in particular women - had been admitted, often unfairly, in the first place and question the impact of this grand scale deinstitutionalization. Along with many other issues that O'Farrell captures so deftly, it is an excellent Book Club choice for provoking discussion; a Reading Guide of poignant questions can be found on O'Farrell's excellent website(2):
I found – and still do – O’Farrell’s prose lyrical and mesmerising; along with her fascinating two strands of narrative structures. Quickly devouring her back catalogue, I was delighted to discover she was by far a one-trick-pony; certainly any whiff of a new novel and I instantly pre-order. Admiring the way she spun her stories – remembering the literary delights of rounded characters and intriguing plots - fuelled an emerging passion to write. So much so, when my cognitive physio extended to Open University study, I switched path from my medical-background comfort zone to pursue modules in Creative Writing.
During a poetry module – a compulsory element I initially dreaded – I came across an interview with O’Farrell(3): ‘At University and in my early twenties I attended poetry classes, where I was taught by Jo Shapcott and then Michael Donaghy. These had a huge effect on my writing, forcing me to economise, to make each word pull its weight.’ It’s an invaluable lesson that both makes me appreciate her prose and helps to form my own.
I championed this book for World Book Night 2012 and I am delighted to favour it again for Shazsbookblog, so others can hopefully learn from its cultural and literary qualities too.
References attained online: