The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

I’ve just finished reading Maggie O’Farrell’s book, The Hand That First Held Mine, which won the 2010 Costa Novel Award. I loved it, but it’s such a sad story. It’s beautifully written, so much so that it took me a while to realise that for the most part it’s written in the present tense.

This is a book set in two time periods about two families and immediately I wondered what the link could be. There’s Lexie Sinclair who we meet at the end of the 1950s and Elina and her boyfriend Ted in the present day. Lexie is young and in love with journalist Innes Kent. Elina is struggling after the traumatic birth of her baby and Ted is worried about her. Then strange things happen to Ted as forgotten memories of his childhood rise to the surface of his mind.

It wasn’t too hard to work out the link, but that doesn’t detract from the story – it just makes it all the more poignant. I wrote about the opening of the book in a Book Beginnings post, but I think it’s worth repeating here:

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 facing politely away from it.  A bicycle is propped 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 suspended in the sky above and even that is silent, beak closed, wings outstretched to catch the high thermal draughts.

When I first read those words I could visualise the scene, feel the breeze and found myself holding my breath, waiting with bated breath to find out what was going to happen. What happened was a wonderful and moving story that kept me captivated to the end as Ted gradually realises the truth. As the epigraph from Matthew Arnold says:

And we forget because we must.

Maggie O’Farrell has a new book out Instructions for a Heatwave, and four earlier books. The full list is (via Fantastic Fiction):

5 thoughts on “The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell”

  1. Margaret – Such a lovely writing style! And I do like stories where there are multiple time periods when they’re done well and related to each other. Thanks for letting us know about this one.

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  2. I loved this book and can’t wait for the new one. Unfortunately everyone else seems to feel the same. I think I’m about number twelve on the library list.

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  3. Good review. Never been able to get on with O’Farrell, but I have hopes for the new novel, probably wait for the paperback, though!

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