The Half-Way-Through-Review. No.9: The Hand That First Held Mine

The Hand That First Held Mine. Maggie O’Farrell. 1943. (Headline, 2011)

If the middle-age, middle-class woman has a natural habitat it is surely the book club. Their hegemony over the organised reading of things is well-known, (and statistically corroborated) but the extent of this pre-eminence was not truly made clear to me until I took the trouble to actually join one. I’ve never really been that concerned to formally share my thoughts on literature with others beyond the medium of this blog, whereby I can shout nonsense into the ether, relatively cosy in the knowledge that little by way of belligerence will be forthcoming. What swayed me from my usual reticence on this occasion was the embarrassingly mundane carrot of a miniscule slot on a provincial UK radio station. And so, I find myself 2 weeks from broadcast D-Day reading a novel I would never have chosen, with the mounting suspicion that I’ve crossed an unspoken social divide, for which a suitable comeuppance is being prepared forthwith. Whilst it’s undoubtedly refreshing on a personal level that my worldview is now that much greater thanks to this largely useless insight into how the other half lives, I wouldn’t be wholeheartedly against the genie being returned to its bottle.

The nature of my group’s democratically nominated choice of book for our debut session did not initially leave me feeling less exposed, in a manner that is honestly pretty unusual as an educated white male. With florid purple cover, and endorsements from ElleMarie Claire, and Woman and Home, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine stakes its claim to a particularly gendered audience pretty severely. At the halfway point I’m still not too sure why this should be the case. Sure, the book deals with relationships, with love, and with loss, and it does so in a manner less masculine cerebral and more maternally contemplative, but there is simply nothing here in the substance of the plot, the characters, or the narrative tone that need render it chick-lit, unless we accept that the notion of a character with post-natal depression is too alien a concept for the male psyche to comprehend. Maybe the publishers simply worry that female protagonists will not strike a chord with male readers, though in the age of Katniss, Hermione, and Arya that theory’s pretty hard to uphold. Whilst nowhere near as iconic (and somewhat older), the women of O’Farrell’s tale would fit well into such company, given that brooding, dislocated, Elena and combative, whirlwind Lexi are complex and layered individuals, rather than the one-dimensional caricatures of the female which would legitimately discourage readers of either sex. And given that we spend half our time with their male counterparts in any case, who are granted as much impetus and agency as their opposite numbers, worries over our developing a testosterone deficiency are plainly unfounded. It’s genuinely baffling that such regressive marketing exists well into the second decade of the 21st century.

Of course, the book has flaws, but again they’re refreshingly unisex shortcomings, bog-standard literary imperfections not solely borne, as far as I can subjectively tell, from any macho prejudices on my part. It would not be fair to say that any of the main group, Lexi, Elena, Ted or even Innes were totally one-dimensional. As referenced above, their depictions are nuanced and each individual marries a human unpredictability with their own personal variety of innate compassion. Innes is inescapably predatory, and I sense that the character works much better on the page than he might on a TV screen, (or indeed were he chasing real-life girls through real-life London) but even he maintains a certain naiveté and vulnerability that keep us on his side. But if the characters win our affection early on, it’s a shame they can’t build anything from this. There is no development of note in any of our four main players. This is most pronounced with Elena and Ted, whose mutual weary detachment, mental checkouts, and unconscious recriminations have all the variety of a Belgian landscape. In the case of Lexi on the other hand, her marooning from her past leaves her attached to Innes for both emotional and actual direction which, whilst central to the story O’Farrell presumably wants to develop for her heroine, leaves both our paramours in a form of dead-end limbo for the first 200 pages. Innes’ death ostensibly frees Lexi to grow and flourish away from the small world they inhabited together, but little that the author or character have done so far suggests such a radical alteration of course.

This lack of methodical progression seems to stem from the trait of O’Farrell’s which is both her strength and her weakness: her ability to write the realistic. Episodes such as Ted’s occasional miasmas of confusion or Elena’s cold terror at the surreal monotony of her world post-child are rendered so vividly that our inhabiting of their world need be nothing but effortless. When Lexi finds herself in a dingy London bar, her surroundings and its attendant denizens are presented with such clarity that it instantly gains the familiarity of one’s favoured local, even if there exists no resemblance whatsoever. Much as this authenticity helps us transcend the boundary between our own reality and that of the author’s fiction, it also leaves the journey feeling less like a holiday and more like a business trip. By focusing overlong on the humdrum, commonplace, and everyday aspects of existence, in both the 1950s and contemporary versions of our backdrop, the appeal of dipping in to either is greatly reduced. Again, Elena and Ted take this to a level beyond Lexi and Innes, as their dialogue in every interaction basically boils down to some mumbled, fumbled attempts at empathy and a collective shrug, this then repeated ad perpetuum. Every conversation is eminently believable, and exactly how I imagine a couple in their situation would communicate, but it’s not sustainable to the level attempted here without some form of modulation. As with The Glass Bead Game, this conscious choice of tone is central to the novel’s makeup. In Hesse’s work, Joseph Knecht’s academic aloofness remained to the very end. Conversely The Hand that First Held Mine seems to be rendering a tipping point unavoidable at the halfway marker.

The success of the novel really hinges on how successfully any change of pace is brought about. There is the seed of a really good novel here, for readers of either sex, if the meandering rootlessness and simmering resentment of the first half is a building block for something more, rather than an end in itself. The early results of the Half-Way-Through Review suggest we rarely change our feelings about a story drastically from those we hold at the end of the first half. Maggie O’Farrell’s slow-burner is the most obvious candidate to upset this apple-cart. Maybe the secret lies in those maligned marketing choices. I was so sure I’d hate the flowery, girly nonsense that surely lay within, that I’m progressively more ecstatic to find something completely different.

1/2 Way Rating: 6/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 8/10

JC

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The-Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 7: The Luminaries

The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton. 2013. (Granta Publications, 2014)

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an 800+ page Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries is a tome with decided pretentions. One of the aspects of modern literature which this blog has occasionally considered in the past is the question of just how books are marketed to the public, and whilst today’s subject is not exactly in disguise, there is a certain considered coyness around elements of its constitution. Simply put, Luminaries is a crime novel, a complex historical whodunit, yet this potentially populist label is deliberately avoided. Coupled with the zodiacal seam running through its pages, (at some distance from the narrative itself), the end product is a book with an unusual but palpable aura. That we begin with a character chart, which divides our players into Stellar, Planetary and Terra Firma groups, does nothing to dispel the air of mysterious erudition, and yet the story itself could easily survive without such peripheral paraphernalia. I can’t think of too many novels whose stage is set so meticulously before the tale is begun when an absolute concrete need does not exist. Our author clearly wants us to enjoy the story against a very specific mental backdrop, which is a bold and interesting move.

I suspect that the temptation for most when reviewing such a confident book, steeped in international recognition and success, and with clear affectations from the onset, might be to find the inevitable flaws and go to town knocking the magnum opus off its lofty perch. On the other hand, maybe that’s only true for those, such as myself, with deeply uncharitable natures. In any case, whatever one’s natural predilection to build up or do down, the craftwork of The Luminaries is so strikingly apparent that to ignore it would be a callous dereliction. I am under no illusions about my own skills as a writer (exhibits A-Z for the prosecution can be found among this blog’s output) but oftentimes when I read I like to fancifully consider whether I could reasonably have fashioned even a single sentence which has gone into a work’s creation. Most of the time the answer is, obviously, an undiluted ‘no’, but even so the manner in which the cognitive wheels have turned in an author’s head to get to their end product is usually to some degree discernible, even if you can’t reproduce it yourself. With The Luminaries I found even this step outright impossible. The prose simply flows and ripples in such a unique manner as to render such analysis futile. This isn’t just because of the erudition which has gone into constructing a richly believable historical reality and its attendant denizens. Moreover, it’s testament to the fact that the author has really written a new type of novel, a page-turner which is as densely and unashamedly verbose as any classic of the Victorian era.

Nor have I come across too many books which offer such cutting insights into the fundaments of human nature.  Yet it would be a huge disservice to call it aphoristic, given that these observations are interwoven so naturalistically. The effect is a ready mine of epiphanies for readers who are so inclined to accept the philosophy on offer. My personal favourite is one character’s observation that given how much of our life is given over to the contemplation of death, the afterlife itself might be a strikingly boring and empty affair. It is simply astounding how many profoundly substantial musings spring from the author’s pen, and the reader will drop their attention, even for a second, at only their own expense.

Given that this isn’t a cover blurb we should make some attempt to temper our praise for The Luminaries to some extent, and for all its craftsmanship there are some obvious flaws therein. Some of these indeed derive from its own readability. Because it’s easy to see a few hours pass in the company of this novel, and consume a hundred or so pages in the process, a repetitive reliance on some limited formulations becomes more pronounced and noticeable. We have about 15 main players in the plot, which should in theory give rise to a whole host of possible constructions of interaction. Yet we see practically the same conversation repeat itself over-and-over. Two (usually male) characters will converse. We will receive fairly lengthy declamations on their characters, temperaments and predilections (not unusual practice but, given the number of male leads, difficult to remember in their finer detail), and once or twice per scene a protagonist will learn some new information which visibly shocks them. The book is almost Socratic in its devotion to the dialogue, perhaps unsurprising for a work which reads on occasion like a philosophical tract. Amazingly though, these dialogues without fail prove to be well constructed, they move the plot along at a perfect pace, and the characters retain their own unique identities despite any shortcomings in the system. The amount of reoccurrence is jarring and uncomfortable to our sensibilities, but if the pace and enjoyability of the narrative remains intact, does this matter?

We could ask a similar question about the crime (or at this stage a presumed misdemeanour) at the very heart of the story, in terms of whether or not it is of importance to us, and to what extent we can be invested in its solution. At the moment it seems that the primary antagonist is likely to be one of the individuals who has existed on the circumference of the main action heretofore. That shouldn’t matter of course, it all depends on the execution of the reveal. The interwoven connections between each character, including with those in whose direct company we spend precious little time, have been meticulously constructed, and are immensely complicated. It would be impossible to keep track of developments, were it not for the author’s good natured and subtly reminders dotted throughout. The intricate web of our players and the depth of their back stories, coupled with prose of such quality, promises a deeply satisfying pay off. Having set our sights so high, anything less would be a disappointment. And as always, for each 100 pages you add to a text, the contract between author and reader becomes that little less forgiving.

1/2 Way Rating: 9/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 7/10

JC