” She fought like a crazed thing. She fought to live, she fought to come back. She has always wanted to tell him this, in some way. She tried. She would like to say to him, Theo, I tried. I fought because I didn’t see ow I could leave you. But I lost. ” (315)
The Hand That First Held Mine, in alternating chapters, tells the stories of two unwed women, spanned over half a century, who face the challenge of parenthood for which they are not prepared. Hedged by her parents’ genteel country life, fueled by a viscerally rebellious nature, Lexie Sinclair plans her escape to London. The stubborn but smart girl is determined to find meaning in her life. A girl like Lexie, who refuses to apologize for walking through the door reserved for men at the university, is meant to challenge social and gender conventions. She does go far, thriving for independence from a male-dominant society that late 1950s Britain was.
Lexie watches all this. She takes it all in. Everything she sees seems freighted with significance . . . Lexie drinks it in, every detail, with a feeling between panic and euphoria: this is perfect, this is all perfect, it couldn’t be more perfect, but what if she can’t remember it all, what if even the tiniest element were to slip from her? (70)
Accidental encounter with Innes Kent, journalist and art critic, saves her from a life of ennui and lack of inspiration. He’s her one-way ticket to London,a world of excitement. Their affair, love-at-first-sight but genuine, coincides with her moving up in the ranks at the magazine he edits, but an unforeseen tragedy changes her life forever. Loss of Kent leaves Lexie to fend for herself. When she begins the career as a reporter in Paris four years later, she becomes a single mother to a boy, refusing to get married to Felix Roff, a BBC war correspondent.
Half a century later, Elina, a painter, faces her own struggle: she recently has a son with her boyfriend, and with whom she struggles to recalibrate their relationship as it evolves into parenthood. As Elina suffers from bouts of amnesia, loneliness and maternal anxiety, Ted is swept by flashes of old memories that develop into panic-attack, as f having a baby leads him to relive infancy.
This keeps happening, Ted finds, and more since Jonah was born. Flashes of something else, somewhere else, like radio static or interference, voices cutting in from a distant foreign station. He can barely hear them but they are there. A hint, a glimpse, a blurred image, like a poster seen from the window of a speeding train. (175)
Maggie O’Farrell’s poetic prose truly brings Lexie Sinclair alive. In her pursuit of a rewarding career and freedom from men and conventions, she is also confronted by change—especially sudden deep, unprepared-for change, and the ways in which an instant can change a life forever. Compared to Lexie’s, portrayal of Elina and Ted is more lackluster. As the stories of these lives unfold at their own pace with grace and heart-ache, the unannounced twists and tragedies, which eventually lift the opaque curtain and reveal the link between two generations, the slowness is justified. Ted’s search for answers to his panic-attack and flashbacks not only reveals that key connection but imparts into the novel a poignant beauty. A beauty of maternal love. The slow-churned plot really haunts me. O’Farrell knows how to pull readers’ emotional strings but not readily reveals what is around the next bend. The Hand That First Held Mine is going to be a memorable book because it shows how fate entwines an ordinary woman to people who forever antagonize her. It explores what it means to have a career and sustain parenthood for a single mother whose scope in life is ahead of her time. It also afford an insights into the working of a child’s memory.
341 pp. Softcover. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [Buy/ Borrow]