Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Hand that First Held Mine

Several years ago, I read a book that was gothic and complex, moving and tender, and spoke of the tragedy that can come from the harsh actions that are sometimes taken in the name of love and propriety. The book was The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell, who has wowed me yet again with her latest novel. The Hand that First Held Mine, a book that shares several themes with her earlier work, is the story, told in alternating chapters, of two women living fifty years apart. Lexie, a girl from the countryside, is making her way in London in the 1950s as an emerging art critic, while Elina is a new mother who cannot remember giving birth after a traumatic delivery in the present day. As Elina's story progresses, it becomes increasingly about her boyfriend. Ted, Elina's boyfriend, had no memories of his childhood before age 8 until he became a father, at which point early childhood memories begin to come unbidden and drive him to distraction. Given that the two stories are in the same book, it seems obvious that the characters' lives will intersect at some point, although it is not immediately apparent how. When it begin to dawn on me what the connection was, I found myself so immersed in the story that I felt simultaneously compelled to rush to the end and to stop reading so that I could confirm that what I didn't want to be the truth was, in fact, their story.

O'Farrell's writing is beautiful and elegant. In one scene, Lexie's activities are visually rewound, and presented as if watching the movie of her life in reverse, to explain how she from the country to London, and I found myself reading and re-reading the scene because the imagery was lovely and was presented in such a unique way. O'Farrell writes of the lasting impact of tragedy, the tricks of memory, and of the heartbreak that comes with too much knowledge. While Ted and Elina's story is fascinating and vital to the book, it is Lexie whose vibrancy drew me and left me wanting more. If you've never read any Maggie O'Farrell, start with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox or The Hand that First Held Mine and I suspect that, like me, you'll be eager to see what this gifted author comes out with next.

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