The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell


There are books that are page turners, whose every line drives the heartbeat up, the hours tick by like nothing at all, and your face turns blue holding your breath too long as you rush your way to the last page.

This is not that kind of book.

It is a quiet sort of book. A story that can be dipped into here and there, as I did. My copy was located upstairs in the loft, once Wee-er Reader’s bedroom now the playroom/Lego-room. It’s a good room for playing in during the colder months, it’s warmer upstairs and is at the front of the house so it gets plenty of sunshine especially in the afternoons. I would read a few pages here, then someone would ask me to play or plonk a Lego creation on my lap (on the book), or they would fight over the same toy, the same chair, or the littler one would wander out of the loft and disappear for a while, making me poke my head out of my book and call for him. Sometimes he wanders back, other times he’s giggling off in a corner somewhere and I wonder, crap, did I forget to close the door to the laundry room/bathroom/guestroom and have to go in search of him. He’s a wanderer that one, and as am I, having gotten sidetracked in this post already!

And so we return to Alexandra Sinclair who, in a bid for freedom, moves to London, calls herself Lexie, takes up a new job at a magazine, and a new man, Innes Kent, “aged thirty-four, art dealer, journalist, critic, self-confessed hedonist”. A new life, seemingly ordinary for today’s woman, but rather forward for the time, mid-1950s, for someone just 22.

“She has had a creeping fear of late that what she wants most – for her life to begin, to take on some meaning, to turn from blurred monochrome into glorious technicolour – may pass her by. That she might not recognise it if it comes her way, might fail to grasp for it.”

Elina is living in contemporary times. An artist, she has just given birth and is coping, or attempting to cope, with the terrifying early stages of motherhood. Doesn’t help that she almost died on the operating table. And seems to have these lapses where she is lost, mentally, emotionally:

“Maybe her life has sprung four thousand holes. Because one minute it was early morning and she was discovering the new smell and then suddenly she is lying on the living-room floor and the phone is ringing.”

Ted, her partner and the baby’s father, is devoted if distracted, with work on his film and his headaches and sudden memories.

As Lexie’s life is propelled forward, by circumstance and the force of her personality, Elina and Ted seem to drift back in time, not in the time travel notion of things, no, but in Ted’s sudden memories of his childhood, memories long buried and returned to him after the birth of his own child.

Reading the narratives of these two women, as we go back and forth between their stories, it isn’t all that easy to guess at how they intersect at first. But this is not a mystery, there are no prizes, no race to the finish.

O’Farrell has the uncanniest ability to write about motherhood, parenthood, and children.

“Elina moves over the grass, bends and lifts him with one movement. His body feels rigid and his cries broaden into outrage. How could you? he seems to be saying. How could you leave me like that?”  

But I do wonder if this book is for everyone. To those who do not know parenthood or do not wish to, these little details about life with a newborn might cause yawns to be stifled, eyes to glaze over. For someone expecting things to happen, for something to be moving along, then they would be disappointed.

It is a sort of gentle read. There is something tremulous and tense about it but these are undercurrents, hints at the disquiet in these lives that we’re reading about.

After You’d Gone (2000) (my thoughts)
My Lover’s Lover (2002)
The Distance Between Us (2004)
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2007)
The Hand That First Held Mine (2010)
Instructions for a Heatwave (2013)


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