I first heard about this incredible book over at Savidge Reads and I thought it sounded amazing, so I popped my name on the reserve list for it at the library. O’Farrell’s writing is so beautiful and evocative and I think the way she links the stories of two women from different times in The Hand that First Held Mine is really well crafted.
The book switches back and forth between London in the 1950s and the present day. The chapters set in the past focus on Lexie, a recent graduate who moves to Soho to escape her small home town and soon embarks on a passionate love affair with Innes, a married man whose malevolent wife refuses to divorce him. Lexie is unnerved by Innes’ daughter, who blames Lexie for her father’s absence and threatens to make her pay. In the present day Elina has recently gone through a birth so difficult that she almost died. She and her boyfriend Ted are struggling to cope with looking after a newborn. Just when Elina begins to find it more manageable Ted starts to fall apart, becoming distant and suffering from some strange neurological symptoms.
Throughout the novel I was trying to work out what the connection was between the two stories, other than the physical connection of them both taking place in London. When it was finally revealed I was so taken aback, I had not seen it coming at all. I think that when a twist is a total surprise like that it’s a sign of a great book.
Lexie is such a great character, I instantly took to her. She’s unconventionally strong and independent for a woman living in the 50s and so likeable. Elina is a good character too and her struggles with her new baby are written in a way to evoke a lot of sympathy without being depressing. The descriptions of the baby and caring for it are alternatively touching and terrifying (to me anyway!).
I’m really looking forward to reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox next by O’Farrell.
“She moves the rattle from side to side and the coloured beads ricochet around inside their clear globes. The effect on the baby is instantaneous and remarkable. His limbs stiffen, his eyes spring wide, his lips part in a perfect round O. It is as if he’s been studying a manual on how to be a human being, with particular attention to the chapter, ‘Demonstrating Surprise’. She shakes it again and again and the baby’s limbs move like pistons, up, down, in, out. She thinks: this is what mothers do.”
“He saw that Elina had lived everywhere, all over the world, that she arrived and left and moved on. That secret thing she had, what she did up there with her paints and her turpentine and her canvases – she only needed that, she didn’t lack anything else, any anchor, any gravity. And he saw that if he didn’t take hold of her, if he didn’t tether her down, if he didn’t bind her to him, she would be off again. And so he did it. He laid hold of her and he held on tight; he sometimes pictures this as him tying the string of a balloon to his wrist and getting on with his life while it floats there, just above his head.”
“She is twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two. She is wearing a blue cotton dress with red buttons. A yellow scarf holds back her hair. She is marching across the patio and she is holding a book. In her bare feet she stamps down th steps and across the lawn. She doesn’t notice the seagull, which has turned in the air to look down on her, she doesn’t notice the trees, which are tossing their branches to herald her arrival, she doesn’t even notice the baby as she sweeps past the pram, heading for a tree stump at the bottom of the garden. She sits herself down on this tree stump and, attempting to ignore the rage fanning through her veins, she balances the book on her lap and begins to read.”