Maggie O’Farrell won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) award for her novel The Hand that First Held Mine. This, O’Farrell’s fifth novel, roughly follows the same format of her previous four novels: characters haunted by their past, of which they may not be consciously aware to begin with, but the past begins to assert itself via a series of apparently chance happenings until the day of revelation arrives, which turns the protagonist’s world upside down.
The story of The Hand that First Held Mine takes place in two time frames: the past and the present. The past is the 1950s London, and the reader is introduced to the feisty Lexie Sinclair, who leaves her stifling home in rural Devon and arrives in London to follow her dreams. She starts working in a departmental store but is soon swept off her feet by the dashing Innes Kent who is the owner and editor of a magazine that has literary pretensions. It is only a matter of time before Lexie joins the staff in Innes’s magazine (where she learns the ropes) and Innes in his bed. Innes and Lexie start a passionate affair, and the knowledge that he is unhappily married to Gloria (though living separately) and has a daughter named Margot (who he believes might not be his) does nothing to lessen Lexie’s ardour. Then Innes dies unexpectedly, and Gloria, who is Innes’s legal next of kin, closes down the magazine. Lexie’s friends at Innes’s magazine help her to find another job, as a reporter. In the course of her work Lexie meets the handsome but feckless BBC reporter, Felix. Over the next few years Lexie and Felix have an on-again-off-again relationship. Lexie has a son from Felix whom she names Theodore or Theo. Felix is temperamentally unsuited for, and therefore unable to, maintain a monogamous relationship. The proverbial last straw for Lexie comes when Felix sleeps with Margot with whom Lexie’s relationship over the years has been frosty, to put it mildly. Felix then allows himself to be unhappily married to Margot while Lexie starts a tentative relationship with another married man, a biographer whom she meets when she interviews a reclusive Irish painter.
In the present we meet a couple: Elina and Ted who have recently had a baby. Elina is half Finish half Scottish while Ted is English. Elina is an artist while Ted works as a film editor. When their story opens Elina is struggling with postnatal blues and is having a great difficulty in remembering things and faces. This understandably is a great source of concern for Ted. Ted’s overbearing mother with incurable busybody tendencies and once-handsome-and-still-slightly-lecherous father are of little practical assistance. Into the bargain Elina is plagued by the suspicion that her mother-in-law does not like her much. Gradually Elina’s mood and memory improve and she is better able to look after herself and the baby, and can occasionally muster up enough energy to make a trip to her ‘studio’ (a shed at the end of the garden) to paint. It would appear though that it is Ted who is now having problems of memory—of a type that is different from one Elina suffered soon after giving birth. Whereas Elina had difficulty in remembering—in other words she forgot—, Ted is from time to time has recollections—images of places, heard conversations—that he has great difficulties in putting a context to. These snippets of recollected events are sudden in their onset and overwhelming in their nature. The puzzle for Ted—and hence the distress—is that until these memories began to force themselves, abruptly and acutely, on his conscious being, they were completely subterranean. And what he remembers or sees in front of his mind’s eye makes no sense to him, as these recollections do not fit in with his conscious memory of past events; nor do they tally with what his parents have told him about his childhood.
The Hand that First Held Mine is a haunting and moving tale of how past can’t be repressed indefinitely and is only waiting to claim what is its due. The novel is essentially two stories, set in different times, told in alternate chapters. The link between the two segments of the plot is initially unclear. However, as the story unfolds the reader becomes aware that the two stories, and the characters within them, are linked. The reader makes this connection roughly half-way through the novel. It then remains to be seen in what way the events and people are connected. Like a consummate conjurer O’Farrell, step by tiny step—revealing just enough in each chapter—, brings the reader to a gradual understanding of what is happening to Ted as he struggles to make sense of what is happening to him.
O’Farrell creates an emotional ambience of suspense, raising the reader’s expectations and eagerness to find out what is going on. The resolution (for the reader) happens in steps, and, when the final piece in the jig-saw falls in place there is a palpable sense of relief. The novel is a page-turner.
However, to describe The Hand that First Held Mine only as a suspense drama would be to do injustice to the novel. The novel is also about emotional bonds between a parent and a child. There are passages of incredible pathos in the novel, yet it is to O’Farrell’s credit that at no stage does she allow the narrative to sink into saccharine, hyperbolic sentiments, which would have been a risk given the plot. It would be impossible for anyone who has been a parent not be moved by the feelings coming out of the pages which (to paraphrase L.P. Hartley) gather around you like a mist; its shape can be guessed at as it approaches, but not when it is directly on you. O’Farrell has managed the perfect balance of emotions and sensations.
O’Farrell describes the travails and tribulations of parenthood with great acuity and understanding. The only (slightly) discordant note—because, though described at great length in at the beginning of the novel, it plays no further part in the plot—is the post-partum memory difficulties experienced by Elina. In an interview she gave at the time of the publication of the novel, O’Farrell said that she herself suffered from a memory disturbance after the birth of her second child, to the extent that the date of publication of the novel had to be postponed. The forgetfulness, mercifully, was temporary; one guesses that the experience must have been so dramatic for O’Farrell that she felt compelled to include it in the novel, where at best it is a red herring.
A word about O’Farrell’s prose. It has a deceptive seduction to it. In sentence after immaculately constructed sentence, the story of this adroitly plotted novel unfolds for the reader. For the first 1/3rd of the novel, the story of Lexie Sinclair is the more appealing, more dramatic and faster moving. O’Farrell has created a very convincing milieu of the 1950s Soho. (In an interview she said that she did research to get the tone of this section of the novel right.) The present day story of Elina and Ted, by contrast, is slow to get off the post; however, slowly it gathers momentum and holds the reader’s attention. When a novel comprises two stories which run in parallel, it is not easy to get the balance exactly right, but O’Farrell has managed this difficult feat.
The Hand that First Held Mine is the second O’Farrell novel I have read. Don’t be put of by its corny sounding title; it is a superb read.