I have a married-with-child female friend who once told me that a writer, or an artist, could be only two of three things. They could be an artist, a breadwinner, or have a child. Doing all of these three things, according to this friend, who was seemingly quoting from another Canadian writer, was impossible. That may or may not be true, but it was with a piqued eyebrow and that quote in mind when I stumbled across The Hand That First Held Mine, for it is a book about two women, a writer and a painter, who make what would appear on the surface to be the ultimate sacrifice to their art: giving birth to a baby.
The book comes courtesy of Maggie O’Farrell, an Irish writer who has published four previous novels, including The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and After You’d Gone. It concerns two stories, which on the surface, don’t appear to be connected, but eventually intersect in a rather heartbreaking fashion.
The first is about a rather naïve young woman named Lexie Sinclair, who lives the good life in a English pastoral country home during the mid-’50s, and decides to move to London to make a name for herself. She is followed there by a dashing young man named Innes Kent, who happens to have a penchant for duck egg coloured ties, and who eventually becomes both her lover and her guide to mastering the arts of copyediting and art journalism (being that the novel in this period is set against the swinging, bohemian Soho arts subculture). Lexie gradually comes into her own as an arts reporter, but finds herself pregnant, and seeks to raise the child on her own at a time when being a single mother was unfashionable.
The other half of the story is set in present day London and concerns a young Finnish painter named Elina, who has just given birth to a newborn son, but not without complications during the labour that just about killed her. She lives with her film-editor boyfriend, Ted, who happens to be suddenly suffering from intense seizures that have become more frequent with the birth of his first child, and may or may not have something to do with the core mystery of the novel.
Disappointing, this is not a novel about the constraints that motherhood puts on the lives of writers and artists. In fact, Elina barely gets any painting done throughout the course of the story, but seemingly not on account of having a newborn son taking a toil on her art. Rather, it is something of a psychological mystery, probing into how the lives of two separate women over the span of 50 years are seemingly connected. It’s a novel about relationships, between family, spouses and lovers. It’s also a novel about family secrets.
One thing that can be said about O’Farrell is that she has a very literary writing style, though it can be a bit aloof at times. It takes about 100 pages or so for one to start to warm up to that style, and the web of characters she has created. However, she has an acute ability to make one understand what it is like to be a mother and the personal turmoil it can create for some women, as she notes in one of the novel’s latter passages:
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 the folding and the drying. Performing these make her almost weep with furious boredom and she more than once hurls an armful of laundry at the wall.
She eyes other mothers when she passes them in the street and they all look so poised, so together, with their handbags hooked over the pram handles and their neatly embroidered sheets, tucked in around their babies with hospital corners. But what about the washing, she wants to say, don’t you loathe the drying and the folding?
Unfortunately, though, for a psychological mystery, the novel takes a very long time for the two story arcs to entangle, seeing that the first minor instance of the two stories blurring occurs on page 157, and the next instance, a major one, takes place on page 250, about three-quarters of the way through the story! Astute readers will be able to figure out what the gist of the novel’s central twist is by the time a few characters are introduced without names to reveal their true identities.
There’s also the matter of the central characters being somewhat unlikable, as Ted and Elina seem to do very little in the course of the narrative other than fight. Lexie’s story is, thus, more appealing as she is a doe-eyed innocent when she reaches London, but even she, as she wanders down the rabbit hole of arts journalism, becomes more and more cynical and embittered. Then, there is the matter of the ending, which takes what seemed to be a very clinical and literary book, and transforms it into a screeching melodrama ripped straight from the celluloid of a ’40s movie starring Joan Crawford.
In the end, if there was ever an example of a book whose pleasures are basically to be found in its mid-section, The Hand That First Held Mine would be it. Its strength is in defining what it is to be a mother, especially for those of us who are childless, and O’Farrell paints a rather exhausting and terrifying portrait of the exertion bearing offspring brings.
However, The Hand That First Held Mine falls apart on its own premise, and becomes a rote story about the impact lies may have when they are exposed. It doesn’t fully illuminate what it means to have a kid, and more importantly in this case, what impact that might have upon creating one’s art. For my friend, that book remains to be written.