‘The hand that first held mine’ is Maggie O’Farrell’s fifth novel. It follows the lives of two women who are separated by 50 years. Lexie Sinclair, who has run away from her rural life in Devon to the bohemian milieu of 1950s Soho where her life becomes entwined with the eccentric but dashing magazine editor Innes Kent; and Elina who in present day London is coming to terms with the traumatic birth of her first child and grappling with the early days of motherhood.
The reader becomes gradually aware that the two stories are connected, and this awareness is heightened at particular moments when the author steps back from storytelling and offers a form of narrative commentary, hinting at things to come. The technique works perfectly as it holds the reader in suspense, while additionally offering a few welcome clues.
The unreliability of childhood memories, versus the stories that we are told about ourselves, becomes the glue that binds the two narratives together. Ted, Elina’s husband, was prone to blackouts as a child, and on becoming a father himself he gradually realises that there are gaps in his memories of the past. He becomes acutely aware of the importance to fill these gaps and remember, and as he does so, the links between Lexie and Innes and his own family fall into place, bit by bit.
What I loved most about this book was its depiction of motherhood. At times Maggie O’Farrell’s prose on the subject reads like poetry, and this paragraph I just had to share as it sums up my thoughts on being a working mum better than I could convey myself…
“When she leaves the house on these mornings, she senses a thread that runs between her and her son, and as she walks away through the streets she is aware of it unspooling, bit by bit. By the end of the day, she feels utterly unravelled, almost mad with desire to be back with him, and she urges the Tube train to rattle faster through the tunnels, to speed over the rails, to get her back to her child as quickly as possible. It takes her a while, once she’s there again with him, to wind herself back to rightness, to get the thread back to where it ought to be – a length of no more than a couple of feet or so feels best, [she]* decides.”
*name removed for those who want to read the book!
I found the end of the novel deeply moving- it left me in a flood of tears! Overall it is a read that I would really recommend. Admittedly after the first 100 pages I was willing the pace of the book to speed up, but once it did and the two stories began to come together, it was a thoroughly compelling read.
My mark: 7.5 / 10