The Hand That First Held Mine

Soho in the Fifties and London half a century later form the two interlocking time frames for Maggie O’Farrell’s ( and 2010 novel. A chance meeting in a Devon Lane between a bored graduate, Alexandra Sinclair, and a flamboyant older man with a broken-down car instigate events that, decades on, will have an unprecedented effect on new parents Elina and Ted.

O’Farrell is a skilful, impassioned writer who has employed a liberal use of coincidence and suspense to haunting effect in previous books. This work, although it contains some powerful passages, is more uneven.

After an awkward start in the Devon Lane, O’Farrell establishes Alexandra – now renamed Lexie by Innes Kent, the motorist who becomes her lover – firmly in the heart of Soho, where Innes employs her as assistant on his avant-garde arts magazine. Despite threats from his estranged wife and the vengeful aspect of a daughter, Margot, the relationship between Innes and Lexie is joyous and committed. When circumstances abruptly change, Lexie is catapulted into a wildly altered landscape. She metamorphoses into a groundbreaking journalist, single mother and free spirit, embracing the zeitgeist as the monochrome late-Fifties explode into a vibrant counter-culture.

In present-day London, Elina, a laid-back Finnish artist in her early thirties, is struggling to regain a sense of self after the traumatic birth of her son, Jonah. The dazed wooziness and locked-in, alienating desperation of early parenthood are minutely observed. Just as Elina is emerging from this leaden hypnosis, so her partner, Ted, a filmmaker, begins to exhibit signs of freakish disturbance. Flashbacks and inexplicable panic attacks escalate, to Elina’s growing alarm. Ted’s complicated interactions with his own parents become ever more strained and confused, as the arrival of Jonah causes him to question his very origins.

The connection of Ted and Elina to Lexie and that vanished era becomes obvious. O’Farrell is an engaging and fluent writer: drab post-war London, with its flashes of brilliance, is nicely realised, as is the emotional and social disenfranchisement that comes with being ‘the other woman’. And there is no shortage of romance and hope, from the very beginning, at Innes and Lexie’s fateful first encounter, which sees Innes ‘walking in his handmade shoes along the roads that separate them’.

384 pages in Headline Review paperback edition

ISBN 978-0755308460

Maggie O’Farrell

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