- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Headline Review; First Edition edition (29 April 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 075530845X
- ISBN-13: 978-0755308453
- Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 23.9 x 3.2 cm
- Average Customer Review: 355 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 480,684 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Hand That First Held Mine Hardcover – 29 Apr 2010
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Q: What made you want to write this book?
A: A few years ago, I attended an exhibition of John Deakin's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Many of them were portraits of people in Soho in the 1950s: artists, writers, actors, musicians. Soho is an area of London that is famous for many things, but I hadn't known that, for a short time after the Second World War, it had been the center of an artistic movement. The bohemian, underground world that thrived there so briefly and was captured so vividly by Deakin fascinated me. I began to conceive a story about a girl, Lexie, who arrives there from a very conventional home and makes a life for herself as a journalist.
Q: There are two stories in the novel, aren't there?
A: The other story is set in the present and is about Elina, a young Finnish painter who has just had her first child. With Elina, I was interested in writing about new motherhood, those very first few weeks with a newborn--the shock and the rawness and the emotion and the exhaustion of it. It's something that's been done a great deal in nonfiction, but I haven't read much about it in fiction. Much of the novel is concerned with people whose lives change in an instant; a decision or a chance meeting or a journey occurs and suddenly your life veers off on a new course. Having your first child is one of those times. As soon as the newborn takes its first breath, life as you've known it is gone and a new existence begins.
Q: Why did you decide to divide the novel into two time frames?
A: I liked the idea of these two women living in the same city, fifty years apart. Lexie and Elina have no inkling of each other's existence, but they hear each other's echoes through time. And, as it turns out, they are linked in other ways--in ways neither of them could ever have expected.
Q: As well as motherhood and the unexpectedness of life, there's a great deal about love in the book as well, isn’t there?
A: Love in many forms powers the book: familial, platonic, and also romantic. Lexie has many different men in her life. There's Felix, the feckless yet famous TV news reporter, and Robert, the rather more serious biographer. But the great love of her life is Innes Kent, the man she follows to London, who takes her under his wing and gives her her first job as a journalist.
Elina's relationship with her boyfriend Ted is challenged by the arrival of their baby. Ted begins to recall things from his own infancy, and these things don’t seem to fit. I was interested in the way having children makes you remember and reassess your own childhood, in micro-detail: things I'd never thought about or remembered before would suddenly rear their head. And this made me wonder what it would be like if the memories that resurfaced were of places and people you didn't recognize, if your own life suddenly seemed strange to you.
Q: Did you have to do a lot of research for the book?
A: The 1950s and 1960s are not that distant in time, and the sixties in particular are very well documented in art, film, photography, and literature. I read history books but also made sure to submerge myself in novels of the period. You get wonderful insights into the way people spoke then; it was quite different from the way English is spoken in London now. The cadences and vocabulary have completely changed. So I read Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Forster. Novels also give you tiny details you didn't even know you needed--how a telephone worked in a house of bed-sitters, for example. Where one bought peacock-blue stockings in 1957.
You have to be careful with research, though. There's a terrible temptation, once you've done all this collecting of interesting details, to shoehorn in as much of it as you can. You can sometimes find yourself writing a sentence along the lines of "She picked up the telephone, which was made of Bakelite, a substance first developed in 1907 by a Belgian chemist..." At which point you have to stop and try to forget everything you know about early plastic manufacture. Most research you have to throw out. But you still need to do it, to give yourself confidence and scaffolding.
Q: London as a city has a strong presence in the book. Was this deliberate?
A: I felt all the way through as if London were the third main character in the novel, along with Lexie and Elina. Most of the novel was written while I was living away from London, so I suppose I was re-creating a city with which I have had a very long relationship (a rather off-and-on one, to be honest).
Q: To what degree does your own life play into your fiction?
A: I don't write autobiographically. Fiction for me is an escape, an alternative existence, so I wouldn't want to re-create my life on the page. There are elements of my life that filter into my books, but they are usually recast and redrawn and reimagined to such a degree as to be unrecognizable to me or anyone else. Lexie and Elina both arrive in London as adults, as I did, and Lexie becomes a journalist, as I did. The scenes about motherhood I couldn't, of course, have written without having been a mother myself. The rest is made up.
Recommended Reading from Maggie O'Farrell
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark: My favorite Spark, I think. A portrait of a women's boarding house in postwar London, including the spinsters, the young dormitory girls, the elocution teacher, the mercenary but beautiful Selina and the Schiaparelli dress they all take turns to wear.
The Severed Head by Iris Murdoch: A devastating account of love and marriage in 1950s London. Murdoch handles her six characters with poise as their lives become ever more entangled.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns: The book I have given most as a present. It's the mesmerizingly lively story of a young artist who marries against the wishes of her family and her ensuing struggle with poverty, motherhood and her awful, self-centered husband. I make it sound gloomy but it's anything but…
Dear George and Other Stories by Helen Simpson: I particularly love the story "Heavy Weather" in this collection, which documents a couple on holiday with a toddler and a baby. Nobody but Simpson can write with such heartbreaking accuracy about life with small children.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham: I read and re-read this book while writing The Hand that First Held Mine. It is, quite simply, perfect. How did he do it?
Any Human Heart by William Boyd: The whole of the 20th century is laid out in the diaries of Logan Mountstuart. A spectacular, astonishing novel.
(Photo © Ben Gold)
'O'Farrell has a remarkable ability to convey the texture of human emotion with precision. In THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE, she also demonstrates a masterful gift for storytelling' (Observer)
'Like Daphne du Maurier before her, Maggie O'Farrell writes books designed to stir up the female subconscious and bring our most primal fears to the surface... this book will leave your stomach in knots' (Daily Mail)
'The journey this novel invites us on is wonderful, involving time travel, heartache, elation, confusion, freedom, nostalgia and art' (Scotland on Sunday)
'This story is elegant, poetic and tenderly written. The characters are so well-written you feel as if they are sat next to you, telling you their stories... an entirely encompassing and beautiful read' (Heat magazine)
'In this fantastic read, O'Farrell weaves together two stories that couldn't be more different... Just how they're connected will keep you guessing till the end' (Now magazine)
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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.
For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or subscribe by email to receive future posts.
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