The one advantage of being sidelined with a robust cold is plenty of time for guilt free reading. Last weekend I was curled up with a blanket, tissues and The Hand That First Held Mine, a perfect companion. I didn’t have to work hard to enjoy it which is always good when energy levels are low. Maggie O’Farrell uses the two parallel stories device with a twist I didn’t see coming – I got a genuine shock when it was revealed.
The first story takes place in the art scene of Soho in London in the 1950’s. Lexie escapes from her stifling family home in Devon and makes a life for herself in London. She has several men in her life, each important but the love of her life is Innes Kent. From a young and inexperienced girl she develops into a character I liked and respected.
The present day story is of Elina and Ted, also living in London and recovering from the traumatic birth of their son. This is the more intense of the two stories. The arrival of their baby brings with it identity issues for both Elina and Ted – the need to reassess their roles as individuals and parents and to address issues from their own childhoods. I really felt for Elina, still in shock and alone. Her mother is back in Finland and not interested and Ted has gone back to work to meet a deadline. Maggie O’Farrell does a very good job of conveying Elina’s feelings of isolation and confusion. I felt quite disorientated myself reading it.
Using a dual narrative seems to be a popular way of telling a story. I have read a few now and find it helps in getting through a book quickly but my preference is for one voice I think, one I can immerse myself fully in without the flow being interrupted.
I also think it is a challenge to tell two stories that hold the readers interest equally. A book that comes to mind is Restless by William Boyd. I absolutely loved the story of the mother set during WWII but the present day story of the daughter seemed like a filler in comparison. The Hand That First Held Mine has two different but interesting stories. I preferred Lexie’s as it was more in keeping with what I was hoping for from the book, a lighter, entertaining read but Elina and Ted’s story was not too far behind.
Winner of the Costa Novel Award 2010
2010, 384 pages