Review: The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

This is both one of the best and worst possible books to read as a new parent, but that is exactly what I did.  I listened to the audiobook while pushing my son’s pram around the park, read snatches of the paperback after his bedtime before collapsing in exhaustion myself.  It captured that shell-shocked feeling of stunned sleep-deprivation which defines so much of the new parent experience.  Two women are connected across half a century – in the 1950s, Lexie Sinclair is 21 years old and about to fly the nest for a bohemian new life in London; in present-day London, artist Elina is struggling to adjust to new motherhood after a traumatic labour.  While they never meet in life, a number of things bind them together.  Some, such as their shared love of art, are obvious, but others show themselves only gradually.

The chapters alternate between the two heroines, so we meet Lexie as she encounters Innes Kent for the first time, he with a broken down car at the bottom of her parents’ garden and she, deeply bored and longing for adventure.  She follows him to Soho and despite his ex-wife and disturbing estranged daughter, the two become lovers. Fifty years later, Elina is dazed and bewildered, struggling to comprehend how she went from pregnant to becoming a mother.  She and her partner Ted are reeling from her labour while also settling into that most terrifying of tasks – trying to keep a new tiny human alive.

Managing multiple narrative threads is something of a trademark for O’Farrell’s but in this novel, they do feel very distinct in tone.  The reader is allowed to inhabit Elina and Ted’s leaden-footed exhaustion, the fraught and confused early days of their new family, but when it comes to Lexie, O’Farrell takes quite a different approach.  We are drawn in as active observers to Lexie’s narrative, with chapter openings guiding our gaze.  Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.  O’Farrell’s prose is always spell-binding but The Hand That First Held Mine feels particularly direct.  Lexie is the star and we are  encouraged to watch her closely.

The novel feels more cinematic than much of O’Farrell’s other work.  An unfurling red scarf sends Elina into a flashback about her blood loss during delivery.  O’Farrell hits fast forward and rewind on Lexie’s storyline to better guide the reader.  Ted himself works in the film industry, reflecting on new parenthood that the baby is like a rather demanding lead actor, Elina as the mother is akin to the director and Ted himself is the production runner, frantically carrying out errands.  Relating this metaphor to my partner, he recognised the truth of it.

Memory, or the absence of it, is an undercurrent to the narrative.  Elina cannot remember the details of her delivery.  Ted recalls almost nothing of his childhood.  The book’s opening quote explains that ‘we forget because we must’ and the significance of these words become apparent as the story unfolds.  The most obvious interpretation is that mothers forget childbirth and the early terrifying weeks and months of our children’s lives because to dwell upon it does no good.  The intensity of my own labour experience has faded rather rapidly, although it was thankfully far less dramatic than Elina’s.  I remember the facts but the feelings are now in soft focus.  But there is more going on here.  Just as Elina has blanked out a traumatic event, Ted begins to realise that he has been ignoring something very important.

The Hand That First Held Mine has its weaker areas; although the chemistry between Lexie and Innes shimmers from the page, Ted and Elina’s relationship feels more flat.  This is problematic given that Ted is intended to be traumatised by her near death and that Elina needs to seem more invested in him during her encounters with his dreadful family.  Margot seemed a caricatured villain, from first appearance to last.  The final denouement which revealed the connection between the two strands of the story felt a little predictable.  All the same, I found it to be an incredibly powerful read.  The true impact comes from how it depicts parenthood.  Elina gingerly reacquaints herself with her own body after delivery, surprised to discover that even her own smell is different.  Reading the book so soon after becoming a mother myself, many of the scenes were painfully recognisable.  The awkwardness of having healthcare professionals in your home.  The horror of your baby unexpectedly evacuating their bowels mid-nappy change.  Even the scene where Ted takes the baby for a very early morning walk to give Elina a break is drawn clearly from lived experience.

The act of procreation is such a universal one that prescribing meaning to it can seem fatuous to those who are uninterested in ever doing it themselves.  We were all born.  We all have mothers.  Many people will live their lives happily child-free.  But still, becoming a mother is one of the truly transformative experiences of life and I loved how honestly The Hand That First Held Mine confronted that.  As a pregnant woman, people looked at me differently.  The gaze always shifted to the bump.  When I saw other pregnant women, we smiled at each other in recognition.  Now, when I see someone else pushing a pram, we greet each other in a similar way.  We know our tribe.  Lexie writes an incredibly powerful passage about the people we become after the birth of our children, a clear cri de coeur from the author herself.

O’Farrell explores the experience of motherhood with poetry and precision, travelling the emotional highs and also its darkest fears.  Learning of Lexie’s fate made me clutch my own child a little closer, the fear of being separated from him far more primal than anything else I had ever felt before his birth.  Strange to say, but I found The Hand That First Held Mine a healing read, giving a voice to how my life has been turned upside down and reassuring me that this is how it is for all of us.  We are mothers, our lives are never our own again, but when we look at our children, we would not change things back for the world.

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The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell
Published by Hachette UK on April 29th 2010
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 352
ISBN: 9780755373277

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2 thoughts on “Review: The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell

  1. I feel like O’Farrell is well on her way to becoming a household name. I’ve not read any of hers yet, but I Am, I Am, I Am and Instructions for a Heatwave are both at the top of my can’t-wait-to-read pile, and I think I might have to add this one too. It seems she has a real talent for unveiling the lived experience of motherhood and trauma – every review I’ve read of her work has detailed how she manages to capture profound truths and deeply familiar experiences (as you mentioned) about that part of life, without the sugar-coating and rose-coloured-glasses that normally accompany such storytelling.

    I noted with interest how you mentioned Elina’s softening memory of her traumatic birth experience – simply because my mother experienced something very similar. Her labour (with me) was long and protracted and painful, and my father still turns green if it comes up in conversation. He remembers it vividly, while she seems to have detached herself from the memory of any pain or trauma and treats it all with very matter-of-fact nonchalance. When I first learned how babies were delivered as a child, I was horrified (still am, if I’m being honest), and I remember asking my mother incredulously “But WHY would women do that? And WHY do so many of them do it more than once, after they know how awful it is?” and she got that dreamy look in her eye, responding with something to the effect of “We all forget the pain, darling,”. She positioned it as a kind of evolutionary imperative, so that women would reproduce enough to ensure survival of the species.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this one (as always), and hope motherhood and your little Astronaut are treating you wonderfully (bowel evacuations mid-change aside!).

    1. I am a big O’Farrell fan. Aside from This Must Be The Place, I have loved every single book of hers that I have ever read. After You’d Gone made me cry when I was sixteen – I feel like I’ve really grown up on her writing. I hope you get a chance to try out her books soon 🙂

      I think your mum is completely right about the evolutionary aspect. I spoke very nonchalantly about a detail of labour recently and a child-free friend turned green and I was honestly surprised. It all seemed so long ago and far away to me – you just forget.

      The Astronaut is wonderful – and again, the bowel evacuations mid-change are not so bad when it is your own baby, I think this must be an evolutionary thing too!

      Hope you’re well, thank you for commenting 🙂

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