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Author:
• Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in 1972 but grew up in Wales and Scotland. She worked as a teacher, art administrator, as a journalist in Hong Kong and a Deputy Literary Editor of The Independent On Sunday newspaper. Presently she works as a full time novelist.

O’Farrell has written six novels thus far. Her first: After You’d Gone, published in 2000, won her the Betty Trask Award in 2001. For her third: The Distance Between Us, published in 2004, she won the 2005 Somerset Maugham Award. As for her fifth novel: The Hand That First Held Mine, published in 2010, she won the Costa Book Awards. O’Farrell’s latest novel: Instructions For A Heatwave, was published in 2013. She lives in Edinburgh with her novelist husband, William Sutcliffe and their two children.

The Hand That First Held Mine is the story of two women, two destinies at two different epochs which are skilfully intertwined by the author. In the fifties, the rebellious, twenty-one-year graduate, Alexandra Sinclair, leaves home in Devon, England to experience a new life in central London, following a chance meeting with Innes Kent, the ebulliently charming thirty-four-year old art dealer, journalist, critic and self-confessed hedonist.

Under Innes Kent’s love and guidance, the young, impetuous Alexandra becomes the newly emancipated, Lexie and experiences for the first time working with Innes and other journalists in the offices of “Elsewhere”, the avant-garde magazine, as well as having an early taste of bohemian life in Soho. The clever, motivated, Lexie will quickly learn to appreciate art and to become a successful art critic and reporter.

Lexie is in love with Innes and decides to live with him in his apartment following his insistence. They are happy together, the only blemish being Innes’s estranged wife, the opportunist, Gloria and her submissive young daughter, Margot. Later in the story, after Kent’s untimely death, mother and daughter in unison take their revenge on Lexie and her son Theo. Margot will marry Felix, the journalist, who is Lexie’s colleague as well as occasional lover and Theo’s father.

Margot’s revenge continues after Lexie’s premature death, when little Theo comes to live with his father, Felix and herself. Margot – who was unable to have children – changes the child’s name from Theo to Ted and pretends to be his real mother. Margot and her mother Gloria keep the family’s secret tightly hidden from him. Felix, being a weak character accepts to go along with their wicked deceit. This will create Ted’s instability and torment as an adult, especially when he himself becomes a father.

A generation later, the thirty-one-year-old Elina Vilkuna, a Finnish painter, is recovering from a traumatic first childbirth by cesarian which nearly killed her and is about to destroy her relationship with her thirty-five-year old boyfriend – and father of her newly born Jonah – the film editor, Ted, who has been behaving oddly ever since.

Following her release from hospital with her newly born son, Jonah, Elina feels bewildered. She appears to have lost all memory of her dreadful delivery and seems to be living in a world of make believe. She makes the effort of trying to recall what happened and can remember in little strokes, like when her red scarf falls, it reminds her of the “jets of blood…in the scrubbed white of the room”.

As Elina is starting to emerge slowly from her amnesia and state of lethargy, Ted’s childhood is returning to him frequently now, in a blurred, handicapping form. He is having an awakening of his long-buried subconscious and is desperately looking for a guiding hand as a beacon to shed some light on all these inexplicably shadowy areas from his infancy which don’t correspond to the stories that “his mother”, Margot, told him.

Being predisposed to hypnotic periods, there are gaps in Ted’s memory. There are many old memories that contradict his other childhood and he is under the impression of having lived two childhoods. There are things he wants to remember but is unable to. He recalls some scenes from the past, a few puzzling flashbacks, like the first outlines on a canvas, he needs to complete the painting, which is difficult with lots of mysteries left unanswered by his parents.

Feeling guilty after his son’s deep depression and collapse, Felix reveals the whole secret story to Elina. He confesses his culpability and remorse and asks her to mediate between him and his son in order for his son to forgive him for concealing the truth from him for all these years.

The two stories run in alternating chapters between Lexie and Elina, without being connected at first, but towards the end the author, with a twist, thanks to her skilful magic wand, makes them converge into one without any exertion but with extreme intensity, compassion and sensitivity.

The Hand That First Held Mine is about the destructive power of the unspoken among members of the same family and the impact on people’s life due to the loss of a family member. The power of the past in re-modelling the present and transcending it, as well as the gratification and richness that parenthood brings to a mother and a father but also how the birth of a first child can change everything in one’s life. It is also about a mother’s deep love and sacrifices – Lexie and Elina are two ambitious career women who try to re-adapt after being jolted to so many responsibilities with their first new-born.

In one of her interviews, Maggie O’Farrell says: “I was interested in writing about new motherhood … the shock and the emotion and exhaustion of it … which I haven’t read much about in fiction”. She also says she couldn’t have written this novel had she not experienced motherhood herself. This exact feeling is described in the novel at the time Lexie knew she was drowning: “She didn’t think in that moment of herself, of her parents, her siblings, of Innes, the life she left behind when she stepped into the waves … As the waves thrust her under, she could think only of Theo” her beloved son that she won’t experience the pleasure of seeing growing up.

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Author:
• Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Tracy Chevalier was born in 1962 and grew up in Washington DC. She obtained a degree in English from Oberlin College in Ohio and worked as a Reference Book editor for a few years before quitting in 1993. She got an MA in Creative Writing in 1994 from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

She moved to England in1984 and stayed there since. She now lives with her husband and son in London.

She is chairwoman of The Society of Authors and is known for being a historical novelist. She said the reason why she likes this genre, is because she feels comfortable with the good, lasting value of the past.

Tracy Chevalier, has written six novels to date :
The Virgin Blue, published in 1997.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, published in 1999.
Falling Angels, published in 2001.
The Lady and the Unicorn, published in 2003.
Burning Bright, published in 2007.
Remarkable Creatures, published in 2009.

Girl with a Pearl Earring was made into a film which was released in 2003, starring Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as Griet. It won several awards.

Although Tracy Chevalier likes Vermeer’s thirty five paintings because of their beauty, the mystery surrounding them and also because of what the expressive solitary women accomplishing their daily domestic duties convey to the viewer. Girl With a Pearl Earring, one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, was the painting that inspired her the most because of the hypnotic and enigmatic look on the girl’s face.

Tracy Chevalier had a poster of the Girl With A Pearl Earring painting on her bedroom wall since she was nineteen-years-old. The mysterious look on the “Dutch Mona Lisa’s” face intrigued her to the extent that one day she decided to reveal what might have been behind this portrait by combining history and art with imagination.

The author had to do careful research to successfully capture Dutch peoples’ lives in those days, the landscapes and the surroundings in Delft. She went to the great length of taking a painting class while writing the novel in order to learn about the art of painting and accurately describe the mixing of the colours, the multiple technics, the different shades and their effects and all the intricacies involved.

She also gathered some information about Vermeer’s painting in their finest details from the woman who restored the painting for the 1996 Vermeer exhibition.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a novel set in seventeen century Delft in Holland about Vermeer’s eponymous painting. The fictitious story is built on a historical background, depicting life during this golden age of Dutch art. Vermeer being a mysterious painter, since very little is known about his life, gave the author the opportunity with her magic wand to mix the fanciful with reality and fill in the unknown gaps in his biography and therefore build an imaginary, compelling story about Vermeer’s portrait of Girl with a Pearl Earring as being his maid, Griet, who was also his assistant and model.

The novel is narrated by sixteen-year-old, solitary, innocent, naïve but intelligent Griet, who, due to her father’s fatal accident, becomes a maid in Vermeer’s household in order to support her family.

She is spellbound by her master from the first time she sets eyes on him but being aware of her position, she knew her place and therefore had to keep her feelings at bay.

Her quiet love and devotion to him are described in great subtlety during her posing for him, but unfortunately, the author described Vermeer so engulfed in his art, that he was oblivious to the outside world. The fact that he was not insensitive to Griet’s charms and her magnetic attraction to him and his paintings was implied by the author in a subtle way but never in words.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is a highly emotional novel without suspense or twists but is elegantly and poetically written with a great deal of subtlety, sensibility, sensuality and nineteen century romanticism. At times, the unsaid conveyed strongly the feelings of the protagonists.

The author with her description of suggestive, luminescent colours, seems to have succeeded the right oil brush strokes effect she was striving for. She wanted to “achieve with words what Vermeer achieved in paintings: simple writing, uncluttered and without superfluous characters”.

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