This is the third of her novels that I have read and in each, her characters are trying to deal with the hidden secrets and concealed truths of their pasts that ripple through generations. In After You’d Gone, a traffic accident leads a young woman to question her past relationships and in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, the reappearance of a long forgotten aunt unravels a web of lies and shame.
The Hand That First Held Mine has a similar premise, exploring the effect of an unspoken truth on several lies, but it is also a poetic musing on motherhood, memory and what it is that we think of as making up ourselves. This is a tale of gaps and losses, reconstructions and remembering.
The book is made up of two concurrent story lines. In the 1950s, reckless Lexie Sinclair has escaped her home in the countryside to make a life for herself in bohemian Soho after falling in love with the handsome and exciting magazine editor Innes Kent, whose home life is far from straightforward. In present day London, Elina, and artist and Ted, a film editor, are recovering from the traumatic birth of their first son. Elina almost died during the birth and cannot remember much about what happened, while Ted finds that fatherhood has brought back some deeply hidden childhood memories that don’t tally with what he knows about his upbringing.
Elina and Ted are filling in the gaps in their lives, just as is the reader. Maggie O’Farrell’s narrator acts as a kind of editor, slowing down action, fast forwarding and forewarning us of the action. It is a risky narrative style, but it works. The reader is always aware of the bigger picture, the wider narrative arc and of the links between the two storylines, between the past and the present, become more apparent the more we read.
She crosses and recrosses the paving slab where Innes first embraced Lexie in 1957; she passes the kerbstone where Lexie stood, trying and trying to hail a cab to take her to the hospital; she leans for a moment against the piece of wall against which Lexie and innes posed for John Deakin on an overcast Wednesday in 1959. And right where the girl from upstairs is grinding out her cigarette is where, in wet weather, it is possible to see the ghost outline of letters spelling ‘elsewhere’ and probably no one notices this and if they did they wouldn’t know why
As Elina tries to remember the birth of her son and Ted tries to reconstruct his early family life, we are trying to see the connections between these four characters and acting as a kind of director, O’Farrell guides us to the truth in a masterful and perfectly paced manner. All of the characters feel removed from their lives at times of trauma. Innes’ magazine is tellingly called Elsewhere and Ted and Elina’s sense of self and sense of each other as a couple are thrown adrift by the birth of their child.
O’Farrell writes incredibly well about motherhood – the joys and the frustrations, the difficulty of simply leaving the house with a new born and the pain of sleeplessness. Both Lexie and Elina find their ‘selves’ subsumed by motherhood,
The shock of motherhood, for Lexie, is not the sleeplessness, the troughs of exhaustion, the shrinkage of life, how your existence becomes limited to the streets around where you live, but the onslaught of domestic tasks; the washing and the folding and the drying. Performing these tasks makes her almost weep with furious boredom…
The domestic work of having a child is knowingly portrayed – the nappies, the wipes, the planning, the nervousness, but O’Farrell also explore the joy of being a parent, an often unimaginable joy.
She could mention that she had been unprepared for this fierce spring in her, this feeling that isn’t covered by the word love, which is far too small for it, that sometimes she thinks she might faint with the urgency of her feeling for him, that sometimes she misses him desperately even when he is right there, that it’s like a form of madness, of possession, that often she has to creep in to the room when he has fallen asleep just to look at him, to check, to whisper to him. But instead she says, ‘Fine. Good, thanks’.
It is also interesting to see the point of view of the father in the early days of childhood – in a subversion of literary convention, Ted’s place in the post-natal upheaval is examined and placed under the spotlight, to the extent that he begins to question his own upbringing.
As well paced and well plotted as the book is, it is the poetry of it that is most striking. O’Farrell is a perceptive writer, focusing on detail and intimacy to ground the story and emphasis the experience. Her descriptions of Soho in the 1950s are evocative and enthralling, like the John Deakin photographs that inspired the book.
So, Innes and Lexie ricocheted like metal balls in a pin-machine….to jazz clubs, to eating houses, to Innes’s flat, to gallery openings, to Jimmy’s on Frith Street, to poetry nights in a smoke-hung basement where thin girls with black polo-necks and parted hair circled like moths around the poets with beards and pints.
It is a seductive scene and the early section of the book suffers a little by comparison when the action shifts from Lexie and Innes to Ted and Elina. Once the stories begin to converge however and that magnetic pull is in force, the mastery of the storytelling is evident and Maggie O’Farrell has you hooked again.
My Book Strings has also reviewed The Hand That Once Held Mine for Reading Ireland Month and you can read her review here.
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