By Carolyn Williams
Maggie O’Farrell’s fifth book, “The Hand That First Held Mine,” artfully melds two stories into one elegant novel: the first the history of Lexie Sinclair, a young woman blossoming in postwar London; the second that of Elina and Ted, a young couple introduced just after the birth of their first child, set fifty years after Lexie’s story.
Lexie makes her entrance in a burst of passion while fighting with her mother in rural Devon. After having been politely asked to leave her university, Lexie is displeased to find herself returned to the stagnation of her childhood home, bogged down by whining siblings and her patently boring life. Luckily for her, at this precise moment, the dashing, flamboyantly-attired Innes Kent appears, his car having broken down nearby. He immediately likes Lexie, and his well-timed arrival imbues Lexie with the courage to escape the stifling mediocrity ascribed to her in Devon. Without much of a plan, Lexie packs a bag and heads off to London, much to her family’s disapprobation, but with the promise of guidance from the intriguing Innes.
Lexie soon joins Innes in his work in bohemian Soho, where he edits an up-and-coming art magazine. Lexie’s natural vivacity and pert opinions make her a promising art critic, while her burgeoning love for Innes grows into a committed relationship, despite his estranged wife and frightening daughter. Lexie’s chapters, which interchange with those of Elina and Ted, are full of passion and an intangible gusto for life, which is somewhat dampened by the fact (made known early on) that she will die young. Still, Lexie’s adventurous zeal prevails, making her the undeniable star of the show, despite the bittersweet knowledge that she must die before the story ends.
Meanwhile, in contemporary London, Elina struggles with the aftereffects of the traumatic, botched delivery of her newborn son. A Norwegian painter, Elina wakes without any memory of the birth, which lasted several days and nearly killed her. Her apparent amnesia surrounding the event terrifies her pragmatic boyfriend, Ted, a film editor, prone to memory blackouts himself. As the days crawl by, Elina reacquaints herself with the day-to-day proceedings of her life, gradually beginning to remember the delivery, regaining strength and familiarizing herself with her new role as a mother.
Ted, however, is plagued by a sudden onset of alien memories which he cannot place. These memories, most of them triggered by interactions with his son, make little sense in the context of his life. Together, Ted and Elina begin to piece together the fragments of Ted’s early childhood, which, it becomes clear, is hardly what it has always seemed. Their search causes their current story to collide with the past, and, of course, with the long-dead Lexie, in an explosive “Aha” moment which leaves everyone reeling.
O’Farrell’s writing nears poetry, challenging the reader from the moment of Lexie’s first entrance. However, once accustomed to the style and pace of the prose, readers will find the story hard to put down. “The Hand That First Held Mine” is a very satisfying read, which, happily, never compromises artistry for story, because it simply does not need to.