And we forget because we must

This is my review of The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell.

You could easily miss "And we forget because we must", which is the author's quotation for this book. Perhaps it should have concentrated more on Ted, whose lost memories lie at the heart of the story.

"The Hand That First Held Mine" adopts the same technique as "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" : two threads run in parallel, with episodes alternating between the present and the recent past of a previous generation. However, the former has a more rambling plot, with few links between the two threads until the final denouement. This latest book is also less dramatic and shocking, since some key events are described rather than "acted out" on the page, plus O'Farrell has an annoying habit of telling you what is about to happen – say when someone is due to die.

The strongest sections of the book for me are those centred on Elina, the young Finnish artist as she struggles with the post-natal trauma of her son's birth, when she almost dies, combined with the total disruption of every aspect of her life, practical, personal and creative by a demanding baby whom she both loves but also find a burden. Some may find the endless details of childcare tedious – they are somewhat exaggerated, but often relieved by humour and likely to bring back wry memories or make the present more bearable.

I suspect this book will appeal mostly to women, although Ted's feelings about fatherhood and its effects on his relationship with his partner Elina are covered sensitively. The abrupt triggering of Ted's puzzling childhood memories did not seem quite plausible for me, although it makes for a mystery to keep one reading on.

The thread based on Lexie, the free spirit at the dawn of the Swinging Sixties is less satisfying. Her dizzy life in the world of publishing is entertaining, but left me for the most part unmoved. The sinister Margot and her ghastly "twirling" mother Gloria seem particularly unconvincing, with inadequately developed roles, which matters as they are crucial to the plot. I also find aspects of Felix's behaviour very unlikely.

I often felt I was reading "exercises in creative writing" – as when O'Farrell rewinds time in order to move Lexie back to an earlier scene. Then there is the detailed description of the cafe which had once been the offices of Innis Kent's magazine. O'Farrell likes to dwell with nostalgia on how buildings have been altered, and their occupants have changed over time.

I was irritated by the narrator's occasional arch collusion with the reader in the Lexie thread – "Here is Lexie"…."This is where the story ends" etc.

The book has a fragmented quality, since it has several styles and themes which perhaps could have been woven together more effectively. It verges at times on chick lit or worse. Yet, I can see why many women will love all the feelings and memories to which they can relate and be intrigued by the plot.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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