By Maggie O’Farrell
Published by Headline Review
I finished reading The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell’s fifth and latest novel, on the same evening that it was awarded the Costa Novel Award and I couldn’t agree more with the jury’s choice. In fact, I am surprised that it hasn’t won all the literary prizes available. Yes, it has made a lasting impression on me!
The narrative of The Hand That First Held Mine, a novel whose subtitle could be “on forgetting and remembering”, is divided into two skilfully crafted storylines at the centre of which are two very strong female characters living in the same city but at different times.
In the 1950s we see Lexie Sinclair leaving her family home in rural Devon and looking forward to an exciting future in London. Through her acquaintance with the mesmerizing Innes Kent, editor of an emerging art magazine, she plunges into the Bohemian life of Soho. Love soon follows but tragic events loom on a not too distant horizon.
In present-day London, Elina and Ted have just had a baby. The emergency Caesarean was a traumatic experience for both of them and, while Elina struggles to remember the details of the birth, Ted is struggling to forget what he has seen and to adjust to the new dynamics of their relationship. At the same time, he is also having flashbacks of a past he can’t quite remember and that are going to unsettle an already precarious equilibrium.
The two stories that make up The Hand That First Held Mine are beautifully written and, as they progress, Lexie, Elina and the cast of main and minor characters that surround them are so clearly portrayed and given a voice of their own that they almost jump out of the page. Vivid is also the way in which London is described, as if you could close your eyes and be magically transported to the streets of Soho or the top of Parliament Hill.
The city, however, is not the only connection between the two storylines. The second link is hidden in clues and hints throughout the novel but becomes evident towards the end, like some sort of epiphany – not unlike that experienced by one of the characters of the book. It’s very clever how the readers are made to participate in this process of discovery rather than being given the role of omniscient bystanders.
After successes like My Lover’s Lover and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That First Held Mine is a new and perfectly accomplished reminder of Maggie O’Farrell’s talent for storytelling. Here’s to more!