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 Elle, Marie 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