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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:
• Friday, April 24th, 2015

Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1963 from a novelist mother, Jeanne Ray, and a police officer father, Frank Patchett. She went to high school at St. Bernard Academy, which is a private catholic school for girls. After graduating, she attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she took fiction writing classes followed by Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. In 1990 she won a residential fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she wrote her first novel, The Patron Saint Of Liars.

Patchett has written fiction and non fiction books. She received the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Nashville Banner Tennessee Writer of the Year Award in 1994 and in 2002 she won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN, Faulkner Award for her breakthrough fourth novel, Bel Canto, which sold over a million copies in the USA and has been translated into several languages. She lives with her physician husband in Nashville Tennessee.

Bel Canto is set in a nameless Latin American country, where the world famous American lyric soprano, Roxane Coss, is hired to sing at a cosmopolitan reception held in the luxirious mansion of the vice president, Ruben Iglesias, in honour of an influential Japanese businessman, Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa, founder and chairman of the successful electronics company, Nansei. The poor host country has arranged this very costly party to celebrate Mr. Hosokawa’s fifty-third birthday, hoping to attract investment and knowing that he would attend in order to listen to his favourite opera singer, Roxane Coss, whom he has been following in concert halls all around the world.

At the end of Coss’s last aria from Rusalka by Dvorak and at the end of an excellent evening, a rebel group called: La Familia de Martin Suarez – three generals and fifteen soldiers aged between fourteen to twenty recruited from the country side – disrupt the gathering to kidnap the president of the country who is not present because he preferred to stay at home to watch his favourite television soap opera. So instead of president Masuda, the entire party is taken hostage. Later on the women and children will be released and thirty nine men plus Roxane Coss will be retained as hostages for four and a half months.

After the fear and panic subside and after a period of readaptation on both sides when the kidnappers find nowhere to go nor how to deal with the unexpected situation of their failed plan, an amazingly beautiful bond of solidarity, love and friendship between captors and captives and among the hostages themselves develops. This is regardless of outside pressure and the constant visits of the International Red Cross worker, Joachim Messner. This fascinating relationship shows that people can become friendly and compassionate with strangers given the chance, and that nobody can be completely bad beyond retrieval, so there is still a hope for humankind.

As the days and months pass, the very young abductors discover their hidden talents. Ishmael becomes a good chess player, only by intently observing his general playing some games with Mr. Hosokawa – the two being good chess players. Cesar can now sing operatic parts learnt from listening to Roxane’s singing and Carmen is fast learning the various languages taught to her by her lover, Gen. Even the Nansei Electronics vice president, Tetsuya Kato, who is usually dealing with numbers, lets his pianistic talent surface. He is only too happy to be Roxane Coss’s new accompanist after the unfortunate death of her Swedish one.

Roxane Coss becomes the revered idol of everybody. Captors as well as captives succumb to her every whim. She is treated like the diva she really is and in return she delights her audience everyday with her delightful arias from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, arias from Vincenzo Bellini, Paolo Tosti, and Franz Schubert’s Die Forelle. They are all now held captive by her beautiful singing and don’t wish to be released from their abductors. She knows that she is a very special, gifted star and enjoys the bewitching effect she has on her audience.

The Japanese gentleman, Mr. Hosokawa, is for the first time facing real passion after experiencing it only virtually all these years, when every evening at home he listens to the bel canto after a hard day’s work. Now he is living a dream and doesn’t want it to end. What could he have wished for more than living with his adored opera singer, Roxane Coss, and hearing her practising her delightful singing every day. For him it’s a pleasure beyond imagination and is even more enhanced when the spiritual meets carnal desire in the early hours of the morning in the bed of his beloved, Roxane, who shares his sentiment.

Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa’s private Japanese translator, is a professionally gifted polyglot, now working full time translating important as well as trivial matters for everyone, the abductors as well as the abducted. He is surrounded by people of various languages and nationalities: Argentinians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Germans, Danes, French, Italians, Russians and English. He attains his reward after a hard day’s work when, hidden in the china cupboard, he makes love every day at two o’clock in the morning with one of his captors, his beloved, beautiful, Carmen, who is also madly in love with him.

Bel Canto is a well-written story with subtle, well depicted characters although viewed under a stereotypical eye. There is the polite bowing of the Japanese men, mentioned often in the novel. The French diplomat, Simon Thibault, who is passionately in love with his wife, Edith, and who volunteers to do the cooking because “he’s French. The French know how to cook”. Then there is the ardent and heavy smoker, the Russian Muscovite, Victor Fyodorov, who bores Coss with his irrelevant childhood stories as an introduction to his love declaration for her. There is also the conscientiously serious German Lothar, a vice president of the pharmaceutical company Hoechst, who feels deeply sad about the death of Roxane Coss’s piano accompanist because of a lack of insulin, given that his company is a leading manufacturer of the drug.

All indulgent, happy, leisurely moments have an end in real life and operas by definition have dramatic endings. Since the novel is called Bel Canto, the dénouement of the story is like an opera finale – dramatically moving.