Once you’ve started to write a novel and to reflect on how
it can be achieved, reading becomes not just entertainment but also a learning
experience. That’s why I sometimes hesitate to post book reviews here, and why
I’ve decided to rename some of them as ‘Writer’s reads’, because the
aim is not so much to recommend or otherwise, but to reflect on how the author
has crafted the story and what I may learn from it. Inevitably this has a
bearing on my enjoyment of the book, but one that may not be an issue for most
readers, i.e. a writer’s stance can often be hypercritical, unless, as my old
writing teacher pointed out, the book is so stonkingly good that I am totally swept along by the story, in which case I’m in the armchair with my feet up and the writer’s hat is thrown on the floor. I have to say this is something that doesn’t happen very often, but many of the books that don’t make it to the hat-throwing are still perfectly enjoyable reads, so, in a nutshell, don’t let me put you off!
Which brings me to Maggie O’Farrell, The Hand that First Held Mine, winner of the 2010 Costa award and spied on the local library with a Top Title sticker. As a big fan of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, and After You’d Gone, I made a grab for it.
It’s immediately clear that his is a ‘two-story novel’ set in different eras. Lexie has given up conventional family life in Devon to make her way in London of the late fifties and early sixties, while Elina, living with her partner in
contemporary London, has just suffered a traumatic caesarean birth which has left her in total physical and mental shock. The two stories are characterised by very different heroines, but also by a variation in writing style. Elina (and also Ted, her partner) is written in what is now the conventional ‘close-up and personal’ style, third person but ‘in the head’ of the character as we experience Elina’s small but significant steps to better health and getting to grips with her new role of mother. With Lexie, on the other hand we are breezing along. In chronological terms we skim through months and eventually years of her life, and the author also invites us to watching her from a greater distance.
‘Here is Lexie, standing on the pavement at Marble Arch’ … Look at her, standing there on the pavement. She looks different from the Lexie in Innes’ room …’
I confess I didn’t quite immediately take to either heroine, finding Lexie and her love affair curiously one dimensional and wanting to shake Elina and Ted from their self-absorption. But I did appreciate the narrative effect that made the sixties episodes spool out like one of those old cinema newsreels against the slower pace of the modern day story.
As Elina gets her physical and mental strength back, I began to like her better but ironically it then becomes clear that although motherhood is a dominant theme of the book, it is Ted rather than Elina who is the focus of the plot, and the ending is about his and Lexie’s fate rather than Elina’s. Ted’s point of view comes out from early on in the book, but Elina’s entrance is the first and the more riveting. Maybe it’s the motherhood thing, but I remained disconcerted at the shift in plot interest and always felt I was rooting for Elina rather than Ted.
So what did I learn? First of all, that although I prefer the modern narrative idiom, maybe I could or should be bolder in my use of narrative styles rather than sticking to established ‘rules’. Secondly, that it’s till best to be absolutely clear on whose story I am telling and sticking with that person or persons from start to finish. As a read, I never quite lost myself in this, but suspect it will stick in my mind for O’Farrell’s often mesmerising writing style and the contrast of characters and settings.