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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The hand that first held mine: am I the last person here to read this book?


Mystery, family secrets and bohemian London are three of my favourite things and I am fairly well chuffed to have discovered them, in combination in Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine. I know that everyone else in the English speaking world read this ages ago, but there you are.

This is a story of two halves with elements of interplay and a last minute link that I will not spoil for those who have not yet had the pleasure. The first half is the story of Lexie Sinclair, convention-challenger and independent spirit of the 1950s. The second half belongs to Elina, young artist and new mother, and her boyfriend Ted who live in modern day Hampstead.

Books are often described as “cinematic” and most of the time I find myself thinking “well, feels more like a story in a book to me…” but not this time. The Hand that First Held Mine feels quite a lot like a film. The hoving in on the subject at the beginning swoops accurately like a camera: “Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and its almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen”. There are strange and unexpected flashes forward and flashes back. Very early in the book we are instructed to visualise the following: “Watch. Innes sucks in a nimbus of smoke, lifts a cigarette stub from the ashtray, appears to envelop Lexie in a shirt and push her across the room, the pillows jump on to the bed and they are both naked and, goodness, doesn’t sex look oddly the same in reverse”. Geddit? O’Farrell has a wonderful sense of people as actors, of life as reel.

There is a family mystery in this book which is not explained until then
end although I suspect that most readers will guess and get it roughly right. It is not an impenetrable puzzle but that makes it all the better. It speaks to me of how many little mysteries there must be, not all as dramatic as this one, in all families and under all noses. It also speaks of something that I for one find rather tantalising – the idea that places somehow “remember” events and that people can retrieve the long buried treasure of their memories by visiting them. This happens to Ted, subtly at first, and then dramatically. I wonder whether O’Farrell is suggesting that it is the place, or the action that has left the mark on the individual memory?

The book could easily be sub-titled “a disquisition on motherhood”, although this may not have encouraged sales. The actual title is a reference to the overwhelming power of the mother-child connection – a theme which is amply developed in the novel itself, and which I can readily recognise myself. A splendid read.

There are other opinions to be found at Harriet Devine’s Blog, Leafing through Life and The Sleepless Reader. Pictures are the book cover, the author and a random picture taken in Soho in the 1950s. If you feel a sense of recognition, there might just be a reason…