Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O'Farrell

The Hand that First Held Mine is my second Maggie O'Farrell novel and I seem to see a pattern emerging. There's a mysterious element to the story--not in the whodunit sense, but in the missing pieces of a puzzle sense. When the mystery is resolved/the puzzle completed, the theme that emerges is the toxic effect of family secrets. And everything is presented in rather elegant prose that captures place  particularly well.

Here part of the mystery is what links to two halves of the novel together. One half, set following World War II, is the story of Lexie Sinclair, a young woman who has been expelled from college right before her graduation because she walked out of a building through the men's only exit. Fleeing her family's quiet country life, she moves to London and becomes a journalist under the wing of Ennis Kent, who becomes both lover and mentor. The second half focuses on Ted and Elina, an unmarried couple who have just gone through the traumatic birth of their first child, during which Elina almost died. Elina is incredibly weak and has completely forgotten the birth. For Ted, fatherhood loosens fragmentary memories that seem to threaten his sanity. What those memories mean is the second and related part of the novel's mystery.

One description called the mystery's resolution a "tremendous revelation." Unfortunately, I cannot agree--by the time the revelation came, I had known what it was going to be for some time. That doesn't mean I didn't admire parts of the book. The story of how Lexie evolved from a naive country girl to an accomplished journalist in a time when that was not an easy path for women was inspiring. I also found O'Farrell's description of the brain fog that envelops Elina after her traumatic birth experience compelling. In essence, I enjoyed parts of The Hand That First Held Mine almost as short stories. As a novel, however, the book was not as rewarding.

Favorite passage:
There on the landing sits the typewriter. It is clogged with dust, the ribbon dried and flimsy. Looking at it gives Felix a feeling close to vertigo. He realises he can replicate in his head the exact sound it used to make. The clac-clac-a-clac of the metal letter hitting the paper, the ribbon raising itself each time to make the impression. The machine-gun fire of it, when the work was going well. The stops and pauses when it wasn't, to allow for a sign, a draw on a cigarette. The ding every time the carriage reached its limit. The whirr as the page was snatched out, then the rolling ratcheting as a new one was wound in.

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