Maggie O’Farrell won the Costa Book Award in 2010 for The hand that first held mine, and it certainly deserves the acclaim it has had from a range of (often) female critics and magazines such as Marie Claire and Lady magazine. The plaudits also come in from The Literary Review, The Daily Telegraph, Observer and Guardian.
The hand that first held mine certainly was unputdownable, but it’s the sort of book you should only read with reserves of emotional energy, and I have to say I skipped several passages of beautifully well written prose both in order to rush on the denouement, and avoid the harassing emotional trauma involved.
These characters are far from stereotypes, and in particular the mother-in-law was a perfectly observed, but fairly shadowy character. In the end I would have liked to see her point of view explored more fully – she was initially the villain whose nails dripped red varnish, selfish and interfering: in the end her moral situation turned out to be far more complex and interesting, but the reader was directed instead to the feelings of the dysfunctional hero, driven to the abyss by the dishonesty of his parents.
The hand that once held mine is a book about birth, and about family relationships of the most unusual kind. In the opening chapters we focus on Elina, the Finnish artist; her experience of disorientation and exhaustion after the birth of a child is something that, as a parent, I could identify with. As the novel progresses, the focus moves onto Ted, her husband, whose own childhood memories are stirred by the birth of his first child. Now he is the one who is disoriented as he tries to trace the memories, and solve the mystery of his own background.
This modern story is intertwined with an older one, of the lives of Ted’s parents, and this story too is interesting, even though it seems to come from the world of romantic literature rather than real life. Ted’s mother’s life, and its end, and Ted’s fathers marital and romantic relationships come from the pages of books and magazines rather than the streets of Manchester or the East End; there are also elements of Hardyesque tragedy which I always find difficult, and the final narrative drive arises from tragic coincidence, rather than the many flaws of the characters.
Nevertheless, read this if you want to shed a tear, feel desperately sad, and read some beautiful and original descriptive narration.