I recently received a copy of The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell as a St Valentine’s Day gift. This book is not new—it was first published in June 2010 and won the Costa Novel Award that same year—but it’s one that I now wish I’d read much sooner.
The Hand That First Held Mine is a captivating piece of storytelling that flips between two different time frames. In present-day London, Finnish artist Elina and her boyfriend Ted struggle to come to terms with parenting their first child in the wake of a traumatic birth. As their story progresses, Ted becomes increasingly troubled by flashbacks from his childhood, which seem out of kilter with his parents’ version of events. In parallel, the novel cuts back in time to follow the exploits of Lexie Sinclair, a strong-willed and independent young woman living and working in the heart of bohemian London during the 1950s and 1960s. Kicked out of university and in disgrace, she runs away from the family home in rural Devon to start a new life in the big city. Taken under the wing of arty magazine editor Innes Kent, Lexie works her way up from literally nothing to features writer at a national newspaper.
The link between these two narrative threads is slowly revealed through a series of teasers and clues from the author. At its heart, The Hand That First Held Mine is a story about love in all its different guises: romantic love, platonic love, maternal love, paternal love, infatuation. But there is also loss and grief to contend with, along with the uncomfortable truth that skeletons lurking in the family closet are likely to impact upon future generations.
The Hand That First Held Mine is rich with interesting characters. I felt immediately drawn to Lexie; however, by the end of the book I had really come to appreciate Elina and Ted too. Minor characters, such as Ted’s friend Simmy, impart warmth and have a key role in moving the action along. I wish more thought had been given to the characters of Gloria and Margot though. They are both in danger of straying into pantomime villain territory on occasion.
O’Farrell has clearly done her research on everyday life in post-war Britain. With exquisite attention to detail, I felt completely immersed in the sights and sounds of the era while reading this book. The descriptions of the fashions of the time are a treat for any vintage enthusiast (right down to the colour of the buttons on a coat that Lexie wears). And the references to life in the world of publishing—looming print deadlines, checking proofs and cutting copy to fit—are also spot-on.
Numerous books are adapted for the big or small screen each year, with varying degrees of success. However, The Hand That First Held Mine completely lends itself to such translation. Suffused with a tangible film-like quality, the narrative voice seems at times more like a director, setting up shots and rewinding footage. The commissioning editors at the BBC have missed a trick if they’ve not yet grabbed the rights to serialise The Hand That First Held Mine under their banner of ‘Original British Drama.’ I would definitely stay in to watch that.
Maggie O’Farrell has published five novels to date. The Hand That First Held Mine was my introduction to this author. Now that I’ve discovered her, I can’t wait to read more.
The Hand That First Held Mine is published in the UK by Headline Review.