How far back can you remember? Most memories of being very young depend on stories told by parents – sometimes embellished, but usually dependable sources of personal history.
Maggie O’Farrell newest novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, offers a bumpy ride through the memory of generations. As you flip back and forth between the lives of new parents, Elina and Ted, to the saga of Lexie and Innes and later Felix, you may guess the connection before Part Two, yet you will be unsure enough to wonder and keep going.
Lexie’s life is the heart of the novel – where it begins and ends. She escapes the English countryside as a young girl to an unconventional life in London, moves in with a married man, starts a career as a writer, and later has a child.
In what seems a parallel universe, but many years later, Elina, an unmarried talented artist, struggles through the physical and mental pains of raising her own son, with Ted – who seems to be experiencing his own brand of postpartum depression. O’Farrell’s vivid description of the insecurity and mundane that parents experience with a new baby will have you feeling as tired and mad as the characters.
O’Farrell’s writing is like a screenplay script with the director’s notes to the actors built-in. She gives every detail of the scene and includes the character’s thought and thought-process at the same time. At times, you will feel you are there in the room with Elina or Lexie; other times, you will want to just skip over the tedium and get to the plot.
If you miss Innes’s blue felt suit or Lexie’s wrists, O’Farrell will bring them back to you again – the costumes and scenery add authenticity but are not relevant. It is the character’s inner thoughts that carry the clues to the storyline.
The mystery unravels too slowly, at times, and the back and forth constraints can be irritating and confusing. Yet, O’Farrell teases with hints that there is more – Ted’s flashbacks, the foreshadowing of Lexie’s life ending, provocative lines – “…the truth is often overrated.” Even if you don’t attend to the clues, you will still see how it all fits in the end.
The plot takes the characters through unexpected turns of betrayal, ambition, and perseverance, that slowly gets to a satisfying ending.
I found O’Farrell with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. In that much tighter and shorter story, O’Farrell also made a statement about betrayal. A woman is hidden away supposedly for her own good – more likely for the convenience of family. The story reminded me of Emily Mann’s play, Mrs. Packard, based on a real story of a 19th century woman who is sent to an asylum for disagreeing with her husband. Esme Lennox is fictional and not as politically charged , but her resurrection is as jarring as that of Mrs. Packard. If you have not read it yet, do.
Add Maggie O’Farrell to your list of authors who can tell a good story.