April 2010

Legacies of love and loss

By Maggie O'Farrell
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It is sometimes the quiet novels, reserved and restrained, that pack the biggest emotional punches. Like artists and painters, truly gifted novelists seem to have the uncanny knack of utilizing “negative space” to tell their tales, striking chords deep within us with a careful juxtaposition of elegant prose while still leaving much unsaid. Reading The Hand That First Held Mine, it is abundantly clear that author Maggie O’Farrell has this rare skill.

O’Farrell’s fifth novel follows the style of the increasingly popular dual-narrative, in which readers are introduced to two remarkable women in alternating chapters. Lexie is a spirited young woman determined to experience as much as she can in 1950s London, while Elina is a present-day artist struggling to navigate the challenges of the first fraught weeks of motherhood following the difficult delivery of her son. Lexie’s journey brings her into the path of Innes Kent, a dashing—but married—magazine editor, who helps her to discover the exhilaration of art, reporting and the various facets of love. As Elina’s own story unfolds, we watch as she grapples with the new depth of feelings her child evokes within her, while also working to incorporate her new role as a mother into her self-identity and maintain intimacy with her boyfriend, Ted.

Initially, the two narratives are equally compelling but also feel separate and unrelated, which may leave a few readers scratching their heads. However, by giving the two stories room to breathe and grow independently, O’Farrell deftly maximizes the psychological tension that sparks and shatters when the two storylines eventually merge. The resulting climax is both dazzling and heartbreaking, rendered in gorgeously haunting prose. A provocative and mesmerizing read, The Hand That First Held Mine is an exquisite but bruising meditation on loss, parenthood and identity that will linger in readers’ minds long after its final pages are turned.

Stephenie Harrison writes from Nashville.

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