The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

“Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen. The garden is empty; the patio deserted, save for some pots with geraniums and delphiniums shuddering in the wind. A bench stands on the lawn, two chairs politely facing away from it. A bicycle is propped up against the house but its pedals are stationary, the oiled chain motionless. A baby has been put out to sleep in a pram and it lies inside its stiff cocoon of blankets, eyes obligingly shut tight. A seagull hangs in the sky above and even that is single, beak closed, wings outstretched to catch the high thermal draughts.

The house is set apart from the rest of the village, behind dense hedge on the crest of a cliff. This is the border between Devon and Cornwall, where the two counties crouch, eyeing each other. It is a much-disputed piece of land. It would not do to look to long at the soil her, soaked as it will be with the blood of Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Romans, filled out with the rubble of their bones.

However, this happens in a time of relative peace for Britain: late summer in the mid 1950s …”

I could go on and on, reading and typing, reading in typing. There is something about Maggie O’Farrell’s writing that I have loved ever since I read her first novel, some years ago now.

Every word is perfectly chosen, every sentence is perfectly constructed. She paints wonderful pictures. Stills, and moving images too. Wonderful stories and moments captured, emotions vivid and pitch-perfect.

I was so swept away that I didn’t even notice that the story unfolded in the present tense …..

My sky-high expectations, after reading so much praise for this book before I picked it, were more than met.

Two stories are wound together through the Hand That First Held Mine.

The first belongs to Lexie. Lexie has been sent down from university, back to her family home in the Devon countryside When she spots journalist Innes Kent watching her over the garden wall she seizes the chance to escape. Lexie plunges into a love affair, into the bohemian London of the 1950s, and she thrives.

I was swept away by Lexie’s story. Such wonderful pictures were painted, such a wonderful range of vivid emotions was evoked. And eventually my heart would break for Lexie.

“She has no idea she will die young that she does not have as much time as she thinks. that she does not have as much time as she thinks. For now, she has just discovered the love of her life, and death couldn’t be further from her mind.”

The omniscient narrator’s voice was wonderful, but how I wished that things could have been different.

The other story set in the present day is of Elina, who is struggling with motherhood after a very difficult birth. A more difficult story to watch unfolding, but it is quietly compelling nonetheless.

And of her husband Ted, Ted worries about Elina and the baby, and then he begins to have blackouts. The birth of his child brought memories of his own childhood to the surface. Memories that he struggles to understand. He remembers a lovely woman holding his hand, smiling, laughing. But he doesn’t know who she was. As Ted searches for answers, the twin story lines merge.

The links are not difficult to work out, but that doesn’t matter. The two stories and their union, are perfectly constructed and the resolution is, quite simply, right.

Yes, everything is right: words, stories, characters, emotions …


16 responses

    • Yes, it is a wonderful title. I would have taken a close look at the book for that even if I hadn’t already known and loved the author. Great book.

  1. I so agree with you about Maggie O’Farrell’s writing – it is just devine! This was one of my top reads for 2010 and your review has made me want to go back and read it all over again!

    • Isn’t it wonderful?! I was so tempted to go on and read the book all over again when I picked it up to write about.

    • Nor am I, but with this quality of writing in the third person I really didn’t think about it. It just worked.

  2. I’ve read so much about this novel and author on book blogs lately, but I hadn’t ever heard of her before. Is this a good place to start reading her novels or would you suggest starting with one of her earlier books?

  3. Fleur, this definitely sounds like something I would want to read. I love books set in your area of the world anyway, but your review is glowing enough to make me want to check it out!
    Hey, I wanted to let you know that I linked to you on my blog today.

  4. I loved this book, so I’m glad you did too! Have you read any others of hers? I would definitely recommend “The Distance Between Us” – if possible I think it’s even better!

  5. Pingback: The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell – Farm Lane Books Blog

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