The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell


Once bitten, twice shy?

If you’ve read my earlier review of O’Farrell’s Instructions on a Heat Wave you’ll know it wasn’t for me.  Still I’m all for second chances, and having been told by a member of my book group that The Hand That First Held Mine was better – it won the 2010 Costa Novel of the Year Award, after all – I decided to give it a go.

The book opens with Alexandra (Lexie) Sinclair in the 1950s and then switches to new parents Elina and Ted in the present day.  There is much to like.  Both stories are individually engaging: Lexie, age 21, leaves Devon for London and carves out a life and journalistic career with bohemian, serial philanderer, Innes Kent; Elina adapts to the first weeks of motherhood while recovering from a labour that nearly killed her (a fictionalisation of O’Farrell’s own experience with her first child).  And moving between Lexie’s expanding world and Elina’s shrinking one, from the hub-bub of Soho to the sound of a baby breathing, makes for a nice contrast in theme and pace.

It falls down, though, because the best bit of each narrative is sacrificed in order to force the plots together.  Lexie’s Soho adventures are abruptly curtailed when O’Farrell kills off Innes. Elina’s experience as a new mother becomes subordinated to the issue of Ted’s recovered memories.

Some spirit of the opening is retained through Lexie, her continuing adventures in journalism (and motherhood) sans Innes.  But it isn’t enough.  I soon tired of Elina and Ted, who are quickly reduced to cyphers, much like the other one dimensional, cardboard cut-outs that populate this book.

Now I can accept plot being prioritised over character as long as there’s a good enough twist to be worth the sacrifice; here the ‘reveal’ is fairly obvious and so doesn’t really cut the mustard.

Harsh?  Perhaps.  It was entertaining, I suppose. But that’s the thing about an award-winning book: I expect a lot.  In this case it didn’t quite get over the bar.

I’ve since found out that one of the three Costa judges said 2010 had not been a particularly strong year for fiction.  Looking back I didn’t particularly like the 2010 Booker Prize winner either, Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, also reviewed earlier on this blog.

While I’m not ready to write off the whole of 2010 fiction just yet – Emma Donoghue’s Room is still on my reading list – it might be time to accept that Maggie O’Farrell isn’t exactly my cup of tea!

Rating: * Not for me (but worth a try)

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