Monday, 31 January 2011
The Hand that First Held Mine ~ Maggie O'Farrell
Switching between the two stories O'Farrell gradually builds a picture for the reader of how Lexie's life in London develops and of how her relationship with Innes, fifteen years her senior and separated from his wife and daughter, grows into an all consuming love on both sides. All the time, however, she makes us aware that, looking back from the time of Elina and Ted, Lexie's relationship will not last. We don't know how these two stories are going to interrelate but having the later perspective allows the writer to take on an omnipotent role and drop hints about the earlier section of the narrative.
The way in which the novel is structured is a direct reflection of one of its major concerns, how the mind plays tricks in respect of memory, blocking out those episodes that we are better off not being able to recall until such time as we are able to cope with them. It isn't only Elina who has gaps in her recollections, Ted is subject to momentary black outs where the world seems to shatter in front of his eyes before slowly reassembling itself and when asked about his childhood he is unable to bring to mind any details before his school years.
Gradually, as the story progresses and we start to understand how the two strands intertwine, the characters also discover what has happened to them and in different ways begin to explore how they might integrate what they have learnt, dreadful though it may be, into a new way forward. Their knowledge is hard bought, but ultimately the future looks hopeful.
The other major exploration in the novel is the nature of motherhood and in particular the pull of the baby and the instinctive bond that comes into being between mother and child from the moment of birth. I am not a mother and therefore perhaps not the best person to comment on this, but even I can see that O'Farrrell captures this magnificently. Some of the passages where Elina is caring for her son are among the best pieces of fiction I have read for a long time and she also deals with the desperate need for a child that can be felt by those unable to conceive or carry their own children and the overcompensation that can result.
This novel won the most recent Costa Novel award and was, I understand, a close runner up for the overall prize. It deserves both distinctions and I now have all O'Farrell's back list lined up in the hope that I shall enjoy her previous books as much as this.