Monday, July 25, 2011

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

It always feels a bit like magic to be swept away by a new author, caught up in the lives of fictional characters so thoroughly that they seem in many ways more real than the folks one is dealing with everyday. Maggie O’Farrell is a writer of extraordinary gifts, and although her 2010 novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, is the first book of hers that I’ve read, I intend to read everything she has written or will write. Indeed, I am now almost finished with an earlier novel of hers, and as impressed as I was with the book I’m discussing today.

This is really two very separate stories of women who live about a half century apart. We meet Alexandra Sinclair in the mid 1950s when she is twenty-one and just as her life is about to change forever along with her name. She is discovered by Innes Kent, thirty-four, an art collector and editor of a small art magazine, as she lies reading in her backyard in a small town in England. The oldest of several children, she feels constricted, claustrophobic, and somehow in limbo as she waits for her real life to begin. Turning her gaze from the overcrowded house she has grown up in, “She keeps only the sea in her sights. She has had a creeping fear of late that what she wants most—for her life to begin, to take on some meaning, to turn from blurred monochrome into glorious technicolour—may pass her by. That she might not recognize it if it comes her way, may fail to grasp for it.”

Within moments of this thought, Innes stumbles onto her; his car has broken down on a country lane, and while seeking help—a garage or at least a telephone—he spies the beautiful Alexandra. And although their conversation is soon interrupted by her suspicious mother, before he leaves the small town, Innes manages to slip her a note with his London phone number on it and a suggestion for a new name. Not Sandra, the shortened form of her given name adopted by her family although hated by her, but Lexie, a name more in keeping with the bright and energetic journalist and lover of Innes that she is about to become.

Next on stage, fifty years or so later, we meet Elina Vilkuna, a talented young artist who has nearly died just four days earlier while giving birth to a son via Cesarean section. After these two introductions, the novel jumps back and forth between the two women and the men in their lives. While the reader has some inkling that the two lives will in some way intersect eventually, part of the intrigue of the novel is trying to unravel the mystery that connects the two women. Both women are bright, both think primarily of their careers, their quests for meaning, and both find men (on the whole) to be a distraction from those quests rather than a fulfillment.

One thing that unites the women is that both find themselves pregnant without having chosen that course, and both find themselves not only unprepared for motherhood, but overwhelmed by it. Ted, the father of Elina’s son, is also thunderstruck by the birth of his son, but not so much by the burdens of fatherhood as by strange, unbidden memories that begin to surface—memories that seem to have nothing to do with the story of his life as presented by his parents, and indeed, some of which seem even to contradict that story. Elina finds herself dealing not only with her own weakened condition and a new baby, but with a psychologically fragile and oddly distant mate.

This novel is enchanting in so many ways; the language is rich and painterly. The descriptions of London life in the 50s and early 60s, and especially of the painters who congregated there, are fascinating. But while there are many threads in the novel, for me it is primarily the intensity of the two female lead characters and their reactions to motherhood that leave a lasting impression.

No doubt parenting profoundly alters the lives of both female and male parents, but I find that I can scarcely even imagine what it must be like for women, especially for women who never see motherhood as even a goal, let alone the goal, of their lives. O’Farrells descriptions of the early days of mothering are frightening, sometimes horrific, but also spellbinding. She talks about the special form of blinding love that some mothers have for their offspring so clearly that even I, an old and quite ignorant man, can grasp something of its ineffable significance. When Ted’s father asks Elina about how she is finding the whole baby thing, she wonders how to reply.
‘Well’ She considers what to say. Should she mention the nights spent awake, the number of times she must wash her hands in a day, the endless drying and folding of tiny clothes, nappies, wipes, the scar tissue across her abdomen, crooked and leering, the utter loneliness of it all, the hours she spends kneeling on the floor, a rattle or a bell or a fabric block in her hands, that she sometimes gets the urge to stop older women in the street and say, how did you do it, how did you live through it? Or she could mention that she had been unprepared for this fierce spring in her, this feeling that isn’t covered by the word ‘love’, which is far too small for it, that sometimes she thinks she might faint with the urgency of her feeling for him, that sometimes she misses him desperately even when he is right there, that it’s like a form of madness, of possession, that often she has to creep into the room when he has fallen asleep just to look at him, to check, to whisper to him. But instead, she says, ‘Fine. Good, thanks’
Lexie and Elina, both passionate about what they do, both quite content being childless, and yet both metamorphosed by motherhood. I love both characters, wish that I could know them. I have not mentioned, of course, the mystery that unties them, nor do I intend to. Suffice it to say that it is not an artificial hook to keep the reader interested. The mystery and its solution are integral to the story and to its worth. I hope you will read the book and solve the mystery for yourself.

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