I loved this book, it started quickly and to the point. It is a short work so I suppose build up and time is spared, this does not detract from the quality of writing.
The telling of Esme's backstory unfolds over the course of the book, at the same time drives forward from the point of now. I found the rambling short bursts of her sister Kitty the most moving, this writing shows the secret locked in world of those suffering Alzheimer's Disease, how a person can forget their current situation, getting stuck on the most simple responses, like 'Do I like yogurt?', but can recall in depth incidents from decades ago. I attended a dementia talk recently and heard how powerful our emotional memory can be. I'm not sure how much sympathy I held for Kitty in her youth, but looking in at her as an aged old lady in a nursing home she struck a vulnerable figure.
Esme herself does not give much away but when she does, gosh, it is heartbreaking. When she is being driven by Iris, she closes her eyes to catch her thoughts. Iris in consideration thinking that Esme is sleeping turns the car radio off. Esme muses how this single act of kindness is the first she has received in decades.
I read Fingersmith (by Sarah Waters), which from memory is set in earlier times to this, but was surprised and further researched how easily women could be sectioned and shipped off for confinement in mental institutions, or asylums (I wonder is the term 'asylum' is still used, I will research that). On the signature of one medic/GP/family doctor this could be arranged. How little, actually no, consideration was given to Esme's wants or needs or actual mental health.
I liked how little was given away in terms of why Esme was the way she was, I liked in her youth, how strong-minded she was. She did not see anything wrong with being different from Kitty, she was forthright about wanting further education. She suffered such dreadful tragedy, events that would push any woman to the edge. I wonder did she have some form of mild learning difficulty, only as she seemed to struggle with communicating.
I didn't much care for Iris and her love-in with the step-brother, this wasn't developed enough, or maybe I cared too little.
The ending suited me. The whole book was for self-interpretation, you yourself the reader filling in blanks, a tidy boxed off ending wouldn't have worked. Esme's future would have played out comfortably, she would be safe and secure and had a regular visitor in Iris. Her madness (not that I bought into that) would have passed.
5 star plus from me. From this I will read everything else Maggie O'Farrell has ever written.