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 fifth 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.
Other reviews of Maggie O’Farrell’s books by this writer:
After You’d Gone
My Lover’s Lover
The Distance Between Us