Monday, 31 January 2011

The Hand that First Held Mine ~ Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel, The Hand that First Held Mine, has a dual setting in time if not in place. In the first part of the book we follow the stories of two women and the men who are fascinated by them. In the 1950s we watch as Alexandra Sinclair leaves home after a row with her mother and transforms herself into Lexie, a young woman capable of looking after herself and soon deeply engrossed in a relationship with the man she met briefly in her home locale, Innes Kent. Switching to the present time we then encounter Elina, just swimming back into consciousness after a three day labour and an emergency caesarian during which she almost died. Initially Elina has great gaps in her memory of both the birth and of her life with her partner, Ted and we watch her struggle as she tries to make sense of what has happened to her as well as cope with the pressures of a young child.

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.



  1. I've heard so many great things about this novel and about this author that I can't ignore Maggie any longer. I'll have to see what's available at my library and get started with her.
    Did you like her writing style?

  2. I've never read Maggie O'Farrell! This is the title I think I've heard most often, and it does seem interesting. Perhaps I'll start here!

  3. This sounds very interesting to me. I'm always drawn to stories that go back and forth in a person's life, looking for the experiences that have shaped their character and circumstance.

    Thanks for bringing this author to my attention!

  4. Anbolyn, I loved the style, there is a reflective nature to it that I found very engaging.

    Erin, this is the most recent and I can't speak for any of the others, so maybe you should start here unless you can find any other recommendations.

    Becca, to begin with you are exploring the lives of two entirely different groups of people, it's only later that you realise there is a link. Except that as you are an experienced reader you know from the beginning that there is going to have to be some sort of coming together.

  5. It's lovely to find somebody else who loved this book, and who can explain its charms so articulately as well. For me this is Maggie O'Farrell's finest, most mature work but her backlist is very readable and definitely worth looking into.

  6. Yes, Fleur, I've been surprised that some bloggers I would have thought would enjoy this haven't liked it as much as I'd expected. I'm certainly looking forward to reading other novels by her. I'm going to check out the order in which she wrote them and try and work through to see her development.

  7. Hmmm, have read mixed reviews on this one. I've not read one of her books yet, but I hope to remedy that soon!

  8. Michelle, the mixture of reactions to this has been surprising. As you will have gathered, I really enjoyed it and clearly the Costa judges felt the same way, but a number of people seem to have found Lexie hard to connect with. Perhaps you should read reviews of her earlier books and choose a different starting point. I can't help there as this is the first of hers I've read.