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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, May 27th, 2011

Allison Hoover Bartlett was born in Toronto Canada. She is a journalist with a B.A. Degree in English literature from the University of Santa Barbara in the USA and is a member of North 24th Writer’s group and Word of Mouth Bay Area.

She has written articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle Magazine and other publications about travel, art, science and education. A. H. Bartlett lives with her husband and two children in San Francisco.

Bartlett’s original article on John Gilkey, the obsessed book lover thief, was published in the Best American Crime Reporting of 2007.

Her book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, published in 2009, is about book theft and book collectors. It’s non-fiction, written in novel form and the two main characters are: an obsessed book lover-collector, the bibliomaniac, John Gilkey and Ken Sanders, his sworn enemy and tracker.

Sanders, is an antiquarian book collector and dealer and in addition to that, a self-assigned dilettante “book detective”. He owns “Ken Sanders Books” in Salt Lake City and is accredited the security chairmanship of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. After receiving several complaints from book dealers about thefts, Sanders becomes obsessed with the arrest of John Gilkey and is determined to have him put behind bars.

Gilkey loves books as objects, as artistic items, regardless of their content. He doesn’t read the books he steals – he collects them in order to attain a certain stature in society with his pricey rare books. He thinks that by assembling an impressive library, he will forge himself a prestigious identity, which he desperately needs as he wants to appear a refined intellectual gentleman. He never steals a book from a shelf, it’s always by credit card fraud – that way he is under the delusion that he isn’t really stealing the books and consequently isn’t a thief.

According to Gilkey’s way of thinking, “all rare book dealers are crooks and fraudsters” so stealing from them is justified by someone like him who insanely loves books and feels the urge to acquire them but can’t afford them. This shows how much Gilkey lives in his own world and has completely lost touch with reality. The fact that he also wants these valuable books as a source of pecuniary wealth is hidden in his subconscious.

Bartlett questioned Gilkey, his family, Sanders and other book dealer victims of Gilkey’s thefts for three years about their involvement in this whole affair. In an interview, she mentioned the reasons that attracted her to write this book: “ I love books, not just for their content, but the ”thingness” of them and I wanted to explore what that was about”. In other words, how an obsession can turn into a glorified crime.

Perhaps the idea of touching and smelling a book has a rewarding feeling that an audio or electronic book can’t equal, at least for book lovers. As for handling rare, valuable books, it can be an unparalleled, magical experience for an enthusiastic connoisseur to the extent of having a clamshell box made to keep this old printed treasure in. As Gilkey told Bartlett: “when he holds a rare book, he smells its age, feels its crispness, makes sure there’s nothing wrong with it, and opens it up very gently”.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is a fascinating story because of its authenticity. An interesting read, which would have been more intense in its impact if the character of the main protagonists were more searched, psychoanalysed and developed. The book would thus have gained more depth.

Gilkey and Sanders psychological behaviour is portrayed briefly by Bartlett as being inconsistent. Gilkey at times appears to be reasonable and sane and at other times seems deranged or irrational in his reasoning. As for Sanders, he appears friendly with Bartlett at the start, before turning hostile and irritated when speaking to her on the phone.

Nevertheless, the book is an enjoyable easy read, specially that Bartlett provides a valuable and interesting insight into the world of books and its aficionados, whether it’s book collectors, book dealers, or book kleptomaniacs.