The Hand That First Held Mine

Maggie O'Farrell

The Hand That First Held Mine
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The Hand That First Held Mine

Maggie O'Farrell

Winner of the 2010 Costa Novel Award and a Sunday Times bestseller, The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell is a gorgeously written story of love and motherhood.

When the sophisticated Innes Kent turns up on her doorstep, Lexie Sinclair realises she cannot wait any longer for her life to begin, and leaves for London. There, at the heart of the 1950s Soho art scene, she carves out a new life.

In the present day, Elina and Ted are reeling from the difficult birth of their first child. Elina struggles to reconcile the demands of motherhood with her sense of herself as an artist, and Ted is disturbed by memories of his own childhood that don’t tally with his parents' version of events. As Ted begins to search for answers, an extraordinary portrait of two women is revealed, separated by fifty years, but connected in ways that neither could ever have expected.

Review

In the mid-1950s, in a quiet English village on the border of Devon and Cornwell, a bored young woman is waiting for her life to begin. In spite of her father’s belief that studying ‘makes women disagreeable’, Alexandra has been away to university. She isn’t sure what direction her life will take, but she knows it will start in London and she is about to meet the man who will shape her there. His name is Innes Kent and he arrives in an ice blue MG. As he observes the young woman through a hedge he ‘believes he is beholding a perfect rural madonna’ because ‘Art is not a background for Innes. It is what he breathes’. She has never seen anyone wearing a daffodil yellow shirt and duck-egg tie before – and never heard anyone speak like him.

In contemporary London, a young couple is struggling to come to terms with the dramatic arrival of their first child. Elina is still in shock after the traumatic birth, which nearly claimed her life. She cannot remember how many minutes, how many months have passed. She tries to extract the details from her partner, Ted, but he is suffering from disturbances of his own. Together, alone, they are overwhelmed by the constant feeding, the mountains of laundry and endless pots of tea for unwelcome visitors. Amidst their domestic wreckage, they grieve for their old selves, their old lives, while reminding themselves their relationship ‘was not always like this’.

Alexandra migrates from a women-only rooming house and becomes Lexie, Innes’ Girl Friday. She receives ‘an education’ in the jazz clubs, coffee-houses and galleries amongst the ‘Bohemians and inebriates’ her parents had warned her about. But Lexie is no ingénue; she is as necessary to Innes as he is to her. In the chaotic offices of elsewhere, Lexie learns how to edit and to write.

Halfway through The Hand That First Held Mine, these alternating stories begin to coalesce; the elsewhere offices become The Lagoon Café Bar, where Ted meets a friend for lunch. These innocuous alignments become more dramatic as Ted’s visual disturbances become more frequent. At an exhibition of John Deakin photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, amongst the portraits of London luminaries Oliver Bernard, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Ted is drawn to a photograph of a couple in front of the elsewhere sign. ‘The man is looking sideways at her but she looks out.’

Maggie O’Farrell has written a compelling character in Lexie, a thoroughly modern woman who fearlessly looks ahead. She retains her curiosity about the world, while shedding her parents’ superstitions and ignoring the envy of others. Most importantly though, she retains her independence through her work – and in doing so, establishes her legacy. Lexie writes an insightful piece on motherhood, but the novel abounds with many references and permutations of the parent–child relationship.

Within the first few pages, I was entranced by O’Farrell’s beautiful writing and have since read a number of her novels, including the outstanding The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. I found myself intoxicated by her characters in the same way I was drawn to Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education and Nancy Schoenberger’s biography of Caroline Blackwood, Dangerous Muse. I will certainly be recommending this to all of my book clubs.

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