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The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell is a name that I probably heard more than I read about. When I finished this book and googled up for reviews, sure enough everyone seems to have read The Hand that First Held Mine last year and the year before and I was probably 18 months too late! I also have 2011 Costa award winner Pure by Andrew Miller with me, so I thought perhaps I could read the two past years (2011 and 2010) winners’ books in a row.

The story is told through dual narrators, and cuts between two timelines.

In the late 1950s, after meeting Innes at her parent’s house, Lexie Sinclair arrives in London, falls in love with magazine “Elsewhere” editor Innes Kent, and plunges into a vivid, vital world of art, and late nights spent poring over page proofs. She was taught the journalistic ropes by Innes, she makes her own living and survive tragic loss.

In the present day, in another part of London, a near-fatal caesarean pitches Elina and her boyfriend, Ted, on to the harsh reality of parenthood. While the baby didn’t stop Lexie from slowing down in her career, Elina, a painter, struggles with sleep deprivation and maternal anxiety, confined to a life of indoors breastfeeding her baby. To top it off, Ted is swept by flashes of old memories that develop into panic-attack, at times he lapsed into a stupor of reverie.

This keeps happening, Ted finds, and more since Jonah was born. Flashes of something else, somewhere else, like radio static or interference, voices cutting in from a distant foreign station. He can barely hear them but they are there. A hint, a glimpse, a blurred image, like a poster seen from the window of a speeding train.

At some point, these two stories must come together…

I do have a penchant for all things retro (80’s and before) so I love Lexie’s world that the author has painted but I do not like Lexie as a character. I find her brave yet not very grounded, she is obviously very unconventional. Elina’s world, on the other hand, is a little practical and closer to my reality, I’m still indifferent towards the characters of Ted and Elina. So is there any good reading this book which none of the characters appeal to me? Yes, for one I think I have read many books I love that I don’t feel any affinity to the characters. Second, the emotional intensity of motherhood described in this book is a heart breaking one.

The three female characters, Lexie, Elina and Margot embodied motherhood in all its states – accidental, inconvenient, longed-for and lost. This is not a book about motherhood but it’s also a book about time. Intertwined between chapters is the narrator’s voice describing Soho offices that transform into latte-and-panini joints and houses that are chopped up into flats and then resolve into family homes, describing the impermanence of the state of life. As Ted and Elina heave their way wearily around modern-day London, a ghost and shadow of other lives – Lexie’s and Innes’s – lies within the walls of the latte joints and various haunts in London. The narration seems to be disjointed from the two main stories but I get what the author is trying to say.

I find a voice-over narrator a little disruptive. “She has no idea she will die young,” I was told, and then by page 337 I was told…”This is where the story ends.” A little anti-climax to my liking. I also wonder how far back can we remember about our childhood?  I seem to remember my life beginning at the age of 4 or 5, but anything before that seems to be a blur to me, I could hardly recall anything at all. Can you?

I’m a mother of two little boys. I do not actively seek to read stories about motherhood. “Motherhood” as a word itself strikes me as something too noble, or too grandeur, something that I couldn’t live up to.

The shock of motherhood, for Lexie, is not the sleeplessness, the troughs of exhaustion, the shrinkage of life, how your existence becomes limited to the streets around where you live, but the onslaught of domestic tasks: the washing and folding and drying. Performing these makes her almost weep with furious boredom and she more than once hurls an armful of laundry at the wall. – page 259

So although I didn’t like Lexie, the part where Lexie took up motherhood with brio and without any doubt of her capability made me admire and like her. My heart throbbed rushing the book through its finale and the hurt that one may felt of the prospect of being separated by her own flesh and blood is a hurt only a mother would know. This is the part, in addition to the love Lexie has for Innes, that Maggie O’Farrell did it for me in an otherwise slow plotting and frustrating slow read of Ted’s queer behaviour among other things.

She wanted to say, no. she wanted to say, I have a son, there is a child, this cannot happen. Because you know that no one will ever love them like you do. You know that no one will look after like you do. You know that it’s an impossibility, it’s unthinkable that you could be taken away, that you will have to leave them behind. – page 345

Exploring the power of relationship is an intriguing one. Maggie O’Farrell is eloquent in this matter and I’ll read her other books because for this reason alone. I wasn’t blown away by this book but it contains some of the most emotional moments I have read, in parts. At least now I can say, I have read Maggie O’Farrell’s book and you should be, if you haven’t.


I’ll leave you with this favourite passage in this book:

We change shape, we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair. We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, s shred of beloved fabric… we lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective. Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies. They breathe, they eat, they crawl…. we get used to living with a love that suffuses us, suffocates us, blinds us, controls us. We live, we contemplate our bodies, our stretched skin, those threads of silver around our brows, our strangely enlarged feet. We learn to look less in the mirror. – page 264

Paperback. Publisher: Headline 2011; Length: 374 pages; Setting: London, UK.  Source: Reading Library copy. Finished reading at: 22nd February 2012.

Other views:

A Guy’s Moleskine notebook: The Hand That First Held Mine is going to be a memorable book because it shows how fate entwines an ordinary woman to people who forever antagonize her. It explores what it means to have a career and sustain parenthood for a single mother whose scope in life is ahead of her time. It also afford an insights into the working of a child’s memory.

Jackie@Farmlane books: The book was easy to read and gripping in places, but I wished that the plot had been a bit more complex or thought-provoking. This book reminded me of Peripheral Vision, I felt that The Hand That First Held Mine didn’t have the same complexity or depth. I’m still thinking about the issues of motherhood raised in Peripheral Vision, whilst The Hand That First Held Mine offered no new perspective on the subject.

Mystica@Musings from Sri Lanka: A lovely, compelling story of love, lack of communication in relationships, and from a very practical point of view impressed upon me the importance of writing a will! A very good story teller Maggie O’Farrell.

Tracey@Book Sanctuary: The Hand That First Held Mine has two different but interesting stories. I preferred Lexie’s as it was more in keeping with what I was hoping for from the book, a lighter, entertaining read but Elina and Ted’s story was not too far behind.

Jennys books:  I promise I enjoyed it, and if you’ve liked Maggie O’Farrell’s past books, I am sure you will enjoy this one too! Only if you’re reading her for the first time, maybe start with The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which is fascinating and suspenseful and has a lovely ambiguous ending. Then when you get to The Hand that First Held Mine, you will have fondness for Maggie O’Farrell stored up, and you will be able to enjoy this book on its merits without needing it to be the best shining example of Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderfulness.

Judging covers: It’s this level of honesty that gave the book a truly haunting quality. It’s moving, it’s different, it’s a little bit disturbing and pretty emotionally draining. It’s one of those books that, once you put it down to do something else, you instantly want to pick it up again.

About the writer:

Maggie O’Farrell (born 1972, Coleraine Northern Ireland) is a British author of contemporary fiction, who features in Waterstones’ 25 Authors for the Future. At the age of eight she missed a year of school due to a viral infection, an event that is echoed in The Distance Between Us. Maggie worked as a journalist, both in Hong Kong and as the Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent on Sunday. She has also taught creative writing. She is married to the novelist William Sutcliffe, whom she met at Cambridge. They live in Hampstead Heath, London, with their two children.

It is possible to identify several common themes in her novels – the relationship between sisters is one, another is loss and the psychological impact of those losses on the lives of her characters. O’Farrell won the 2010 Costa novel award on 4 January 2010 for her novel, The Hand That First Held Mine.

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


19 thoughts on “The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

  1. It sounds as though we had quite similar reactions to this one. I do actively seek out books on motherhood as I think, especially in these early years, they will connect with me more now than at any other point of my life. I think she had some very good passages in this book, but they didn’t quite join up to make a convincing novel. I especially agree about the narrator. I normally like hints like “She has no idea she will die young”, but they didn’t seem to be placed very effectively and I agree that it all faded in an anti climatic way. This is the best O’Farrell that I’ve read and I don’t quite understnad why she is raved about so much.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | February 28, 2012, 12:31 pm
    • Jackie,
      It makes me think about looking for books on motherhood and I read the a post you wrote few months ago. Unfortunately I cannot connect with “The Birth of Love” by Joanna Kavenna but will try the others. I agree that the amazing passages didn’t quite join up with the other parts of the book so I’m a little lukewarm with what goes in there. I just hate that “This is where it comes to an end” bit. I just thought it is so unnecessary. I’ll try the Esme Lennox next and by then I’ll make my mind about O’Farrell then!

      Posted by JoV | February 29, 2012, 12:47 pm
  2. This was the first Maggie O’Farrell book that I read and while I don’t think it’s a perfect novel, I was really moved by the beauty of her writing. Finishing this one left me with the urge to seek out all of the other books she’s written… Most recently I read her debut novel, After You’d Gone, and once again was blown away by the power behind her words. I think I wound up enjoying AYG more than this one so even though this one didn’t exactly rock your world, I do think O’Farrell is an author well worth investigating!

    Posted by Steph | February 28, 2012, 1:57 pm
  3. I must admit I’ve never read anything by Maggie O’Farrell either, but have been eyeing up The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox for some time now, must get round to it soon.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | February 28, 2012, 2:14 pm
  4. I won a copy of this one a long time ago and just downloaded the audio as well. I am really looking forward to reading it now that I’ve read your review. I think the narration would bother me… not sure if I would like that or not.

    Posted by Ti | February 29, 2012, 6:35 pm
  5. I liked-didn’t-love The Hand that First Held Mine. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, on the other hand, was very good indeed, and was the first Maggie O’Farrell book I read. So I have all these fuzzy thoughts for her on the strength of one book I loved, one I liked just fine, and one (After You’d Gone) that I liked quite well. Reading order makes such a difference, doesn’t it?

    Posted by Jenny | March 1, 2012, 2:17 am
  6. Wow! I think this is one of your best reviews ever Jo! There is a poignancy in this review itself, an emotional resonance, and I can only imagine the emotional power of this book then! I hadn’t heard of this book either – I will search for it in my local library – but your review made me wonder – do we read a book because we seek identification, a common link in the characters or do we read books to remove ourselves from it? Is reading an escape from life, or a deeper plunge into it?

    Posted by Soulmuser | March 2, 2012, 12:25 pm
    • Soul,
      That is a good question Soul. I seek out books with characters that I identified with but I also seek books to escape myself from it, the latter one being books that I was not part of the milieu, especially travel books or a book with a subject matter that I’m intrigued but don’t know anything about.

      Looking at my own response, that almost covers ALL books in the world isn’t it? 😉

      Posted by JoV | March 2, 2012, 1:09 pm
  7. Jo – great review as always. I enjoyed this but not having children myself, didn’t relate to it as a mother might do and as you and other reviewers have done. I love reading all of our different thoughts on a book coming from our different backgrounds – it’s a real pleasure isn’t it? Thanks for this review.

    Posted by Tracey | March 4, 2012, 6:41 pm
    • Tracey,
      I think we love books which is closer to our current predicament, I think. So we may love different books at different age but also hate the ones we used to love before! lol. Life is such. Ironic. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | March 5, 2012, 8:37 am
  8. Hi Jo,

    this has been on my wish list for a while. The reviews have seemed mixed, but it seems like it is worth trying for myself. Thanks for your well-done review.

    Posted by Diane@BibliophileBytheSea | March 7, 2012, 12:07 pm
  9. I kept wanting to yell at Ted, “Your wife is in desperate need of medical attention! Call your GP–or 999–now.”

    Posted by Carol Anne | July 8, 2012, 7:54 pm


  1. Pingback: February 2012 : Wrap-up « JoV's Book Pyramid - March 11, 2012

  2. Pingback: Sarah Thornhill by Kate Grenville « JoV's Book Pyramid - March 15, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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