"The Hand That First Held Mine" Maggie O'Farrell
I chose to read this book as it was on offer on Kindle and I have read a few other Maggie O'Farrell's and have always found they are a reliable read. However, I do think this book was more than "reliable". For some reason it struck a deeper cord and I was surprised how quickly I engaged with the writing and how reluctant I was to put it down. I think it is the style which I found so appealing. O'Farrell chooses an omniscient, anonymous narrator for this novel, and blended with her clever use of metaphor and description it is quite a mesmerising voice. The opening lines are so gentle but as intriguing and beguiling as the opening of a thriller.
Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.
We begin on the border of Devon and Cornwall in the mid 1950s. It is late summer and 21 year old Alexandra is at home having been sent down from University for leaving through the door marked for men. She is cross. She is frustrated. She despises her family - her mother in particular. She sits under the tree and reads. Then a man, Innes Kent, passing in his car, spots her and is immediately entranced by the beautiful composition she makes, a "rural madonna." "Life," as Alexandra knows it, "is about to begin."
We then move about 50 years forward to the present day and the story of Elina, a Finnish artist living in England who had a baby 4 days ago but has lost all memory of it. The birth was problematic, traumatic and involved operations and a blood transfusion. She now finds her self weak and frequently falling asleep; these "lapses as she likes to think of them, are like the needle on a record player...leaping from one song to another," or that her life has "sprung 400 holes." I found the descriptions of Elina really entrancing. O'Farrell captures the fugue like moments and evokes the confusion, tiredness, dreamlike mental state really effectively in a way that mimics Elina's mind. Her mediative reflections about what is happening to her were well written. Elina describes her voice as "drowsy, vague as if at any moment it might wander out of the range of sense." I think this is one of my favourite lines in the whole book. It truly encapsulates the first few days of motherhood (and possibly the next decade!) but also the internal struggle that Elina is enduring as she tries to reconcile herself with who she has become and tries to remember or reconnect with her previous identity. She feels so removed from her life before the baby; she wishes she was still pregnant, still complete.
Her husband Ted is also haunted by memories. The memories his mother speaks of don't seem connected to him. His childhood was one of "absent parents" and completely different to that of Elina's past of freedom and adventurous outdoor games. He vows to be a better father to his child. Both characters in this storyline are used to explore themes of memory, forgetfulness and dreams, and both characters feel like they are trapped within some kind of trance from which they have to be released.
There is some beautiful writing in this novel. I found the passages about Elina quite soporific. I liked sentences such as "there are better things to do with your life. If only she could remember what they are." How she feels she could "float up and disappear into the clouds" but another part of her is "tethered to the house." I loved the descriptions of their house and life with a brand new baby:
"there isn't a surface that isn't covered with the flotsam and jetsam of the day; nappies washed up all over the floor, coffee cups on tables, a breast pump on the television."
O'Farrell's attention to the minutiae is so convincing that it is incredibly easy to visualise everything. She subtly conveys character and emotions to the reader through the details she chooses to draw to our eye. When Elina first returns to her studio to paint and her mother in law barges in, completely oblivious to the sacrosanct space and organisation of the room - not to mention the significance of the fact Elina finds herself able to paint again - the tension and emotion of each character is very well caught. There is such power in what is left unsaid; what is implied, what we can see going on underneath the surface. The scene is depicted with such clarity and thoroughness that is vivid- full of colour and noise. O'Farrell's writing is not arduous or prolonged, or overwritten, but it is perceptive and shows someone who is full of experience in making excellent observations of people and life. Another wonderful scene is the description of the Blue Lagoon Cafe:
"Cups and glasses stand inverted on the draining board, tepid water slides off them to pool in circles around their rims. the floor is swept but not very well...there is a focaccia crust under table 4 dropped by a tourist from Maine;....the cafe listens attentively.....as if sensing the night time calm, the refrigerator obligingly shudders into silence."
Oh yes, the English Teacher in me was desperate to photocopy and present to students, to all get out our highlighter pens and pull some of these paragraphs to shreds. What a luxury to just be able to appreciate exquisite imagery and lovely writing.
There are many references to film in the story. There is a great passage when we actually watch Alexandra - or Lexie as she becomes- life rewind back in slow motion to the point at which we left it. There is a moment when Ted "rolls the film forwards and backwards" during work editing a real film reel but metaphorically this shows the lack of control in his own life and how he teeters between decisions and paths. The use of film as a metaphor also puts the reader in the position as an observer. The narrator often refers to "we" which encourages a relationship between reader and narrator but also the sense that we are both watching a film or play unfold in front of us. We are detached but involved. Similar to film there is a continuous reference to the sea. Both metaphors perhaps encapsulate the sense of fluidity, movement backwards and forwards, a trance like- hypnotic swaying as we are carried along through life. The two story lines work well together as one is reflects on a life lost, one on a life found. Both about new life. It is not lost on me that in one scene a magazine was left open at a headline "How to Become Someone Else".
Lexie's storyline is much more active and action packed than Elina and Ted's narrative and this also provides a good contrast. It is impossible not to like Lexie. She is ruthless, irksome, prickly and a workaholic. She is feisty, bold, inspiring, ambitious. Her sections are often wry and full of character in a way the other storyline is more placid and passive. But she is sensitive and caring. She is flawed but easy to empathise with. I loved the sentence describing her leaving for work and leaving her son behind for the day:
"As she walks away through the streets she is aware of the thread between her and her son unspooling, bit by bit. By the end of the day she feels utterly unravelled."
The ending is emotive, evocative and powerful. It is gentle but still full of drama. There is suspense and tension but understated. The reader is completely caught up in the atmosphere of the novel. It is a book to read slowly and to savour. The voices of the characters are exceptionally well captured and it is sad but not sentimental. It was like watching a play.
Although the two story lines do converge and connect, which is enlightening and adds further depth to the characters, for me it was not really what the story was about. For me, I was motivated to keep turning the page because of the believable, troubled characters each searching for who they are, their lost self, how they were going to define their role as a mother, a wife -a lover. How each of them, the women and the men, were on a journey of self discovery and to become reconciled with their own true identity.
I would recommend this book. It's a 4/5 star rating from me.
I would also recommend "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" and "Instructions for a Heatwave". Her latest book "This Must be the Place" has also received fantastic reviews.
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