A Moving Look At The Bonds Of Motherhood

The Hand That First Held Mine
The Hand That First Held Mine
By Maggie O'Farrell
Hardcover, 352 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $25

Read An Excerpt

The relationship between a mother and her child is a difficult one to nail in fiction. How exactly does one enclose between two covers the most complex relationship a person will ever have; the way it hangs over both players, for good or ill, for the rest of their lives? It's a rich subject, and yet mothers in fiction teeter into treacly sentimentality more often than not. It's the difference between the simplistic and the simple. A writer can reduce a story to a cliche, or he can create a delectable reduction, the way chefs can turn ordinary broth into sticky, decadent demi-glace. It just takes a steady hand and a slow burn.

Maggie O'Farrell comes equipped with both. She illuminates the lives of two new mothers in her fifth novel, The Hand That First Held Mine. Lexie Sinclair is an art critic and reporter, the working woman in 1960s London making her way in a man's world. She never thought of herself as the maternal type, and yet here she is, pregnant and deciding to go through with the pregnancy, even if she has to use a dresser drawer for a crib — and she does. O'Farrell's second protagonist, Finnish Elina, is a painter living in contemporary London and recovering from a traumatic birthing experience. Both try to rediscover their balance and begin their lives anew after the shock of new motherhood.

Maggie O'Farrell i i

Maggie O'Farrell has written five novels, including The Distance Between Us, which won a Somerset Maugham Award in 2005. Ben Gold hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Gold
Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O'Farrell has written five novels, including The Distance Between Us, which won a Somerset Maugham Award in 2005.

Ben Gold

How the two stories overlap is not as interesting as how O'Farrell manages to take two rather ordinary women in ordinary circumstances and create something extraordinary. The reader feels every frustration, the women's exhaustion, fear and gritty determination. O'Farrell is a confident writer, relying on subtlety and economy. When Lexie's mother insists on calling her grown daughter by a childish name, it's all the reader needs to understand the strain in their relationship and the steeliness that will take Lexie far from her family home in Devon.

Of course, this is not only a novel about motherhood; it's about love and accidents and art and the way a person's absence — whether a lover's or a mother's — can create an unmovable ache. But The Hand That First Held Mine's core is this primary, most important of relationships. The London-based O'Farrell has written a book that is not only beautiful and moving — it's saucy.

Excerpt: 'The Hand That First Held Mine'

The Hand That First Held Mine
The Hand That First Held Mine
By Maggie O'Farrell
Hardcover, 352 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $25

Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.

The garden is empty, the patio deserted, save for some pots with geraniums and delphiniums shuddering in the wind. A bench stands on the lawn, two chairs facing politely away from it. A bicycle is propped up against the house but its pedals are stationary, the oiled chain motionless. A baby has been put out to sleep in a pram and it lies inside its stiff cocoon of blankets, eyes obligingly shut tight. A seagull hangs suspended in the sky above and even that is silent, beak closed, wings outstretched to catch the high thermal draughts. The house is set apart from the rest of the village, behind dense hedge, on the crest of a cliff. This is the border between Devon and Cornwall, where the two counties crouch, eyeing each other. It is a much-disputed piece of land. It would not do to look too long at the soil here, soaked as it will be with the blood of Celts, Anglo- Saxons, Romans, filled out with the rubble of their bones.

However, this happens in a time of relative peace for Britain: late summer in the mid-1950s. A gravelled path curves towards the front door of the house. On the washing-line, petticoats and vests, socks and stays, nappies and handkerchiefs snap and writhe in the breeze. A radio can be heard from somewhere, one of the neighbouring houses perhaps, and the muffled thwack of an axe falling on wood. The garden waits. The trees wait. The seagull, balancing in the sky above the washing, waits. And then, just as if this is a stage set and there is an audience, watching from a hushed dark, there are voices. Noises off. Somebody screams, another person shouts, something heavy hits the floor. The back door of the house is wrenched open. 'I can't bear it! I tell you, I can't!' the someone shrieks. The back door is slammed, resoundingly, and a person appears.

She is twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two. She is wearing a blue cotton dress with red buttons. A yellow scarf holds back her hair. She is marching across the patio and she is holding a book. In her bare feet, she stamps down the steps and across the lawn. She doesn't notice the seagull, which has turned in the air to look down on her, she doesn't notice the trees, which are tossing their branches to herald her arrival, she doesn't even notice the baby as she sweeps past the pram, heading for a tree stump at the bottom of the garden

She sits herself down on this tree stump and, attempting to ignore the rage fanning through her veins, she balances the book on her lap and begins to read. Death be not proud, the words begin, though some have called thee mighty and Dreadful.

She bends with tense concentration over the page, sighing and flexing her shoulders. Then, without warning, she lets out a sudden growl and flings the book away from her. It hits the grass with a subdued thud, its pages fluttering closed. There it lies, surrounded by grass.

She gets to her feet. She doesn't do it as anybody else would, gradually moving from sitting to standing. She leaps, she starts, she bounds, she seems to stamp on the soil as she rises as if, like Rumpelstiltskin, she would crack it open.

Excerpted from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell. Copyright 2010 by Maggie O'Farrell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

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