Saturday 12 March 2011

Names and stories

The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline Review, 2010)

It is a treat to be relished when Maggie O’Farrell produces a new novel, and this one matches all our previous expectations. It follows many of the features we have come to recognise as her special characteristics: the process of gradual revelation and realisation in her plot lines; and the managing of convergence and continuity between her characters.

This time her carefully crafted revelations are even more intricate, as she sets herself two parallel strands of narration: a contemporary couple getting to grips with their new baby, alternating with the more romantic story of a bohemian couple in post-war Soho. The contemporary narrative moves slowly, painfully slowly, with every hiccup and hysteric of the troubled infant dutifully detailed (too much information?); whereas the historic story takes on a more compelling pace, with the easygoing child of that milieu growing up apparently faster and less traumatically.

The two worlds were deliberately chosen to illustrate current fascinations of the author: the underside of the apparently staid 1950s, when John Deakin was taking his memorable photos of street corners in London, and women were beginning to make their way in the aggressive world of journalism; while in the modern era, despite the great leaps of progress for women, a new baby still has the ability to derail a mother’s life and mind, until she can get it all back on track. 

The reader is inevitably searching for the eventual links between the two narratives; and, intriguingly, so is Ted, the contemporary father, hunting for these same explanations in his life, but cleverly the reader is just ahead of poor Ted in realising the inevitable denouement. When you can see you have only a few pages to go, and how on earth will the author resolve the conundrum, she teases you yet again with a ‘not quite yet’, until eventually the inevitable occurs. She has the magical power of making you turn straight back to the first page to reread with your new-found understanding of the whole shape of circumstances…

In retrospect, my one reservation about the success of the revelations is the importance of names: had we been told all the adults’ names, the cat would have been out of the bag; so we knew the plot but not the names, whereas Ted knew the names but not the plot. But then there is the brilliant clue of the photo: only marginal to our understanding of events, but crucial to Ted’s unlocking of his story, and this is the cornerstone of the whole plot!

So apart from revelling in these two contrasting periods, what are the bigger themes of the plot? In the first place it’s about memory, and the compelling notion that memories of our childhood are suddenly triggered by producing our own firstborn. But at a deeper level it’s about identity: that our identity is set by our birth, and that we have a right to know every aspect of our childhood in order to understand our identity. These were clearly the meditations that drove Maggie O’Farrell’s imagination when her own new child was born.


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