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I loved *LOVED* Maggie O'Farrell's first novel, 'After You'd Gone' but for me, everything she has written since then feels a little disappointing in comparison. I'm sure I'm probably in the minority. O'Farrell's latest offering, 'The Hand That First Held Mine' is unmistakably her, and for me this is both a blessing and a curse.
I've seen that the storyline has already been explained so I won't repeat that here.
So the blessings: O'Farrell is the absolute master of portraying the beautiful tableaux of a scene, the tiny details of a still-life moment. I've never read anyone else who can do this as well. It almost (but not quite) makes up for the deficiencies of the plot - see below under 'curses'. She's also particularly good at writing mother-daughter relationships, and she brings London, where she sets many of her novels, to life. All good. Great, in fact.
The curses: Is it me or does O'Farrell always use the same plot device, ie (1) She always jumps around chronologically, so that the plot is resolved only at the end when all the pieces have finally been revealed. (2) There is always something hidden, some secret that we wait to be uncovered. Nothing wrong with this but she seems over-reliant on the one mechanism to move the plot along, and it can feel forced and cliched as we wait for the big reveal that may have been guessed some time before. Finally, (and this is a personal gripe), she has a habit of setting out dialogue with a little pause, like this: 'This', she said, 'Is final', or 'Why', she asked pointedly, 'Not?' It's a bit twee from a writer who can do much better.
So if you're a big O'Farrell fan, no doubt you'll like this, too. But if you want quality writing, originality and real sparkle, read her first novel and leave it there.
It is the mid-1950s and Alexandra is stuck in rural England, living at home, sharing her bedroom with siblings again, after being sent down from university for going through the wrong door - an act for which she refuses to apologise. She's ready to make her mark on the world. So, she packs up and makes her way to London - with little more than the card a stranger gave her, and the new nickname he's dubbed her with - Lexie. Soho, here she comes. Fast forward to the present and we find Ted has just weathered almost losing the woman he loves, Elina, while she was giving birth to their son. Although Elina is on the mend, something is happening to Ted that seems both strange and sinister. How these very diverse and disconnected lives connect is the story behind Maggie O'Farrell's latest novel "The Hand that First Held Mine", and it is her best work yet.
The style of this novel is precisely O'Farrell's forte - taking two (or sometimes more) characters or situations and bringing them together to build a story. The novel switches between the two very smoothly, especially since in this book the plots unfold during two different eras. Using different timelines is something she investigated more in her fourth novel, "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" than in her previous ones. And while I found the other books to be very successful in keeping separate voices during co-existing stories, the generation jumps work even better, and seem to allow her to gain even further focus on the stories. And although the action in the book fascinates us, this is really a character-driven story.
And O'Farrell knows full well how to develop characters, making them lifelike and realistic, but without becoming predictable. Maggie O'Farrell uses third person in her novels. While many may think that this voice is less personal than first person, there is an advantage. With third person, she is able to delve into the types of things about her characters that they wouldn't be revealing had she used a first person narrative. Plus, she does this with such a minimal amount of background descriptive passages that as soon as we read the first line, we are thrust directly into the story and these lives. Combine this with a talent for almost poetically constructed prose, that's still approachable by not being flowery by using simple language and the magic begins.
In addition, O'Farrell's theme to this book is a universal one that anyone can identify with. Here she investigates self-discovery, answering the questions that the past has put up for you, while finding your way in your daily life. While this sounds a bit dry, we also see how lies and deception can put us off course, and even affect us physically as well as emotionally. For instance, Lexie falls for Innes Kent - a married man whose wife is cruel and vindictive, where she has no right to be. This is because her daughter was conceived while he was a POW during WW2, and yet she never admits this, and Innes never tells the girl, either. On the other side is the appearance of Ted's sudden flashback memories of his childhood, obviously triggered by the trauma of his almost losing Elina, which are affecting his eyesight and giving him headaches. And as the mysteries of these two eras are gradually explained, the reader gets more and more involved in the story, making this such a page-turner, you won't want to put it down until you've finished the last of its 352 pages.
I've said it before, but it bears repeating; Maggie O'Farrell is an amazing writer. What she accomplishes here with her fifth novel, trumps everything she's done until now. Reading this book I had the distinct feeling of her slowly bringing these characters into our minds, hearts and the world, was like taking small bites out of your favourite food, and letting it settle in your mouth and then allowing it to slowly be consumed, taking as much pleasure out of every flavour and nuance of texture possible. Furthermore, how she brings the two stories together was like watching someone learn how to shuffle a deck of cards, without actually finishing up with one stack. She edges the ends closer and closer together until each pile is perfectly integrated with the other, and yet still separate. It's this delicate balance between the whole and the sum of its parts that makes this so marvellous. And to top it all off, I haven't been so effected by a novel emotionally, since John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany". Finally, what makes this even better than "Owen Meany" is the absolute perfect ending to the book (which I certainly won't reveal), which leaves us at a perfect climax in the book where you're in such a state of intensity that you might even find yourself crying uncontrollably, as I did.
Don't get me wrong, just because this made me cry doesn't mean its "chick-lit". On the contrary, this is literary fiction at its finest. I am certain that anyone who enjoys a beautifully written book with fascinating characters, a story that keeps you interested, and a style that is both unique and easy to read, will love this novel. This book deserves to receive more than five stars out of five, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. This may seem terribly high praise, but once you start reading this, you'll realize I'm not exaggerating in the least.
Davida Chazan © August, 2010
Available new from Amazon for £8.49, or via their marketplace from £6.93 - it looks like the paperback is sold out, and will only be available again in November or March of next year! Why am I not surprised?
I always used to be a real bookworm as a child and went through a book a week or so, but in recent years I hardly ever find myself sitting down and reading a novel. It's not that I don't have the time or lack the reading material, as I have quite a few unread books lying around my room, but I just rarely choose to pick one up. When I do, however, I always love reading and wonder why I don't do it all the time. On my recent three day trip to Lithuania with my boyfriend I decided that it would be good to bring one of my books with me and get into it on the plane, but being a forgetful idiot, I neglected to pack any of them. This led to me browsing the book section at WH Smith in Edinburgh Airport, where I ended up choosing this book based solely on the fact that I recognised the author's name. I felt quite stupid a couple of hours later when I realised that Maggie O'Farrell's name was familiar because the last book I'd read all the way through (After You'd Gone) was also written by her. While I felt a bit silly for forgetting this fact, it made me sure that I'd made a good choice and was likely to like this book as I had loved the last one.
The Hand That First Held Mine is Maggie O'Farrell's most recent novel, though since half of it is set in the 1950's and 60's when it was written is somewhat irrelevant. The story follows two different sets of characters: firstly Lexie Sinclair who moves to London from Devon in the 1950s after meeting the very interesting Innes Kent, and secondly Elina and Ted who have just had a baby in present day London. Each set of characters' stories are followed on alternating pages, and although at first they both seem to be very different, as the book progresses similarities between these characters and their lives are revealed. I won't give anything away at all about the storyline as I don't want to spoil anything for any of you, but I will say that the book's main themes are love, loss and, to some extent, betrayal.
Quite simply, I really enjoyed this book. I loved the characters of Lexie and Innes and their interesting lives in the Soho art scene, and I think that the book was skilfully written in the way that it moved seamlessly from character to character without feeling like it was jumping about a lot. Even within the same chapter we would find something being written from Lexie's point of view and in the next paragraph from Innes', which is a difficult thing to do in the third person without making it sound stilted. I liked the way that the story unweaved slowly, and although we are told a few important things that happen late in the novel at the start, we are all the more interested to find out how these things happen rather than feeling that we know more than we want to. There were a few things that became clear to the reader without actually having to be told them outright, which I found to be a nice stylistic choice as it means that the reader feels intelligent for working out what is going on without having to be told it in black and white. This made the unforeseeable events in the story seem even more shocking, and the book really benefits from this, in my opinion.
Despite really enjoying this book, I can't say that it is without its flaws. For one, I never really felt much for the characters of Elina and Ted. They both had trouble with things in their lives, such as coping with the baby and the effect he had on their relationship, but I never felt as though I felt their pain or cared about them anywhere near as much as I did about Lexie. While on reflection there were some very clever and subtle parallels between Elina's life and Lexie's which are interesting if you pick up on them at the time and I imagine would make it an interesting book to read for a second time, but I always felt myself caring much more about what was happening in the sixties rather than in the present day. I also felt that the latter two thirds of the book was more compelling and better written than the first 100 pages or so, but the fact that I adored the novel towards the end makes up for a less engaging beginning, in my opinion.
In conclusion, The Hand That First Held Mine was a beautiful book and was one that I enjoyed very much. I stayed up until three in the morning reading it and crying (I cry at everything though, so don't be put off if you don't like sad books) as I simply just couldn't put it down. I thought that the different types of love were shown in a very touching way in this novel and it was interesting to draw comparisons between characters' love for their children and that for their lovers and family members. I feel that this is a novel that women would enjoy more than men, but I'll get my boyfriend to read it and get back to you. I unfortunately had to pay £13 for this book at the airport, but it's also available on Amazon for a more reasonable £8.50, which is more than worth it in my opinion.