Thursday, May 6, 2010

A few thoughts on British novelist Maggie O'Farrell

Back in March, in my long post about re-reading, I mentioned that I was looking forward to reading Maggie O'Farrell's newest novel, The Hand That First Held Mine. I've now read it and have a few thoughts.

First, the backstory. I've been a big fan of O'Farrell since her first novel, After You'd Gone, which I read in Varanasi in 2002, having bought it in the same book buying binge in Kathmandu that netted me Trapido's Noah's Ark (and perhaps 10 other books--very reasonable, as binges go). Reading After You'd Gone was a consuming experience, and, as with Noah's Ark, I read it over again immediately. (I really don't do this very often; it was probably a combination of those two particular books and the fact that I was somewhat starved for good fiction. While Varanasi has a fabulous bookstore in my friend Rakesh's shop, Harmony Books--now online, which is very exciting!--Harmony is more fully stocked in academic and India-related books (of which it has masses) and less in fiction.)

I was rather shocked that After You'd Gone was a first novel--it felt too accomplished for that. The story focuses on Alice Raikes, who, in the first few pages of the book, steps in front of a car at a traffic light and spends the whole book in a coma. The rest of the book shows us how Alice got to that point, and where she might end up. The point of view shifts, sometimes in Alice's voice, sometimes from Alice's third person point of view, sometimes from the point of view of her mother, Ann, her grandmother, Elspeth. The shifts happen quickly, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph, and along with the shifts in point of view, the story shifts in time as well, moving from Alice's childhood to her college years to her recent past, to her unconscious present. And yet, despite the frequent shifts, I didn't ever find myself lost. O'Farrell's narrative voice is so strong that it is easy to trust her as a writer.

After You'd Gone is a love story, primarily, but it's also a family story, the story of a woman, Alice's mother, who marries a man she doesn't love and spends her life in the small Scottish town where he grew up, living in his mother's house. And it's the story of three sisters, Kirsty, Alice and Beth, and tall, passionate, often angry Alice's place in her family.

I was so taken by After You'd Gone--recommending it right and left, giving copies of it away--that over the next few years, I asked friends traveling to Britain to bring back her next two books, My Lover's Lover and The Distance Between Us, which hadn't yet been published in the US. I was really disappointed in the former, and while I liked the latter, I didn't love it. Still, I trusted O'Farrell enough as a writer that I was eager to read whatever she wrote next. I thought she really hit her stride again with her fourth novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which I found gorgeous and harrowing, so much so that I can't quite imagine reading it again. (This is not to say that I don't recommend it; I do, highly. I think it's stunning. I'm just not sure when I'll feel up for it again.)

And that brings me to her latest, The Hand that First Held Mine, just published in both Britain and the US to excellent reviews.

O'Farrell specializes in dual narratives and in secrets, especially family secrets. Her best books move with an urgency towards their conclusion, leaving the reader simultaneously exhausted and in awe of her narrative power. As in Esme Lennox, O'Farrell weaves together two strands, one historical, one set in the present. In one story is Lexie Sinclair, bright and ambitious with no patience for her family's provincial life. Her sudden acquaintance with Innes Kent, editor of a arts and culture magazine and man about town in 50's Soho, leads her to London, to a job at Innes' magazine and into his bed and his heart. In the present, we meet Ted and Elina, a young couple who are both traumatized by the birth of their first child--Elina because she nearly died during the delivery and Ted because the birth of his son seems to be causing flashbacks to his own early childhood, a return of memories he had no memory of, memories that make no sense in the context of the rest of his life.

The story's threads move along separately and then, as the book progresses, begin to intertwine, so it becomes evident, eventually, what the connections between these two seemingly disparate stories are. But the two stories, Lexie's and Elina's, are linked also by the themes of motherhood and art and loss. As in everything O'Farrell has written, the line-by-line writing is gorgeous, the details precise and telling.

I really enjoyed The Hand that First Held Mine, but still, I couldn't seem to help myself. This time, though, immediately upon finishing it, I went back and re-read After You'd Gone for the fourth or, perhaps, fifth, time. I thought The Hand that First Held Mine was a beautifully written, emotionally moving book. I don't want to take anything away from it. But when I went back to After You'd Gone, despite knowing all of the details of the story, I found myself captivated all over again, not to mention weeping steadily through the book's last quarter. (I'd also cried during The Hand that First Held Mine, but only at one key, heartbreaking scene.) The Hand that First Held Mine is perhaps a more accomplished book. O'Farrell clearly did a lot of research on Soho in the 50s, about the art scene, about life as an arts reporter, but she doesn't get bogged down in it. Her touch is light, and she weaves the two strands together surely and beautifully.

But even 8 years after my first reading, I found the power of After You'd Gone unchanged. Like its main character, Alice, the book is passionate and visceral and controlled but not at all contained. O'Farrell may have matured as a writer in the years since it was published, but something about that first book's rawness makes it especially compelling. A book that makes you cry on the fifth re-read has a lasting power that can't be denied (even if I am a bit of a softy).

I have no good way to end this except to say, Read Maggie O'Farrell. Whatever she writes, I will read, and I suggest you do the same.

If you want to know more, about O'Farrell or her most recent book, here are a few links. Caroline Leavitt was lucky enough to interview her on her blog, CarolineLeavittville. There's also an interview in the Daily Telegraph about some of the photographs that inspired the new novel. NPR has a nice review as do the Guardian and the Daily Mail. There's also a long(ish), thoughtful review at

1 comment:

yecalleinad said...

The Hand That First Held Mine sounds like a wonderful book.