In modern day Edinburgh, Iris Lockhart is a capable young woman with her own vintage clothing shop and a small flat from part of a larger family residence. Although her grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s, Iris has few problems other than a less-than-desirable love life, currently with a married man.
When a letter arrives from a mental hospital naming Iris as next of kin to Euphemia Lennox, a great aunt, Iris is confused, long believing her grandmother to have been an only child. What Iris discovers is very unsettling - the asylum is closing, Euphemia (Esme) to be released after confinement since the age of sixteen.
The woman is a virtual stranger, and Iris is reluctant to take any responsibility for her welfare other than to deliver Esme to a residence home. Meeting Esme for the first time, the granddaughter cannot deny the family resemblance, nor does the woman appear insane, although extremely reserved. Taking her to the residence, Iris is unable to leave Esme, the place a haven for drug addicts and denizens of the streets, certainly not a safe home for a woman newly released after sixty years of confinement.
Taking Esme to her home for the weekend, Iris is in an unenviable position, with no assurance that the woman is sane or capable of living in the world at large. But thanks to Esme’s recollections of her early life with sister Kitty in India, where the girls are raised with ayahs until the birth of their younger brother, a family portrait gradually takes form.
The family returns to Scotland after a terrible tragedy; Kitty is groomed for marriage, and Esme is sent to a local girl’s school. Unfortunately, Esme is of an independent mind, constantly tormented by schoolmates and dominated by a father who will not tolerate his younger daughter’s independence.
A victim of time and circumstances, Esme is whisked from society, hidden behind the façade of the asylum, her response to a trauma misinterpreted by her parents, facilitating her indefinite incarceration. Her fate is ultimately decided by others, Esme left to suffer the consequences of her dilemma and the manipulation of a family member.
Although Iris has visited her grandmother in hopes of learning more of Esme’s story, Kitty reveals nothing but continues to ruminate over the past, her attitude toward a rebellious sister and an unflagging desire to make an appropriate marriage. Through the intertwined memories of the sisters, a terrible image appears, one dominated by self-interest and the denial of another’s existence.
Trusting her instincts, Iris is drawn to the enigmatic Esme, the older woman calmly deliberative, recognizing the family home, wading in the ocean, allowed to move about without supervision for the first time in sixty years. Esme has survived a terrible life, her world constricted to the walls of the asylum and those who live there. With beautiful, devastating prose, Esme’s story is told, Iris witness to the denouement of a tragic and moving tale.