The relationship between a mother and her child is a difficult one to nail in fiction. How exactly does one enclose between two covers the most complex relationship a person will ever have; the way it hangs over both players, for good or ill, for the rest of their lives? It's a rich subject, and yet mothers in fiction teeter into treacly sentimentality more often than not. It's the difference between the simplistic and the simple. A writer can reduce a story to a cliche, or he can create a delectable reduction, the way chefs can turn ordinary broth into sticky, decadent demi-glace. It just takes a steady hand and a slow burn.
Maggie O'Farrell comes equipped with both. She illuminates the lives of two new mothers in her fifth novel, The Hand That First Held Mine. Lexie Sinclair is an art critic and reporter, the working woman in 1960s London making her way in a man's world. She never thought of herself as the maternal type, and yet here she is, pregnant and deciding to go through with the pregnancy, even if she has to use a dresser drawer for a crib — and she does. O'Farrell's second protagonist, Finnish Elina, is a painter living in contemporary London and recovering from a traumatic birthing experience. Both try to rediscover their balance and begin their lives anew after the shock of new motherhood.
How the two stories overlap is not as interesting as how O'Farrell manages to take two rather ordinary women in ordinary circumstances and create something extraordinary. The reader feels every frustration, the women's exhaustion, fear and gritty determination. O'Farrell is a confident writer, relying on subtlety and economy. When Lexie's mother insists on calling her grown daughter by a childish name, it's all the reader needs to understand the strain in their relationship and the steeliness that will take Lexie far from her family home in Devon.
Of course, this is not only a novel about motherhood; it's about love and accidents and art and the way a person's absence — whether a lover's or a mother's — can create an unmovable ache. But The Hand That First Held Mine's core is this primary, most important of relationships. The London-based O'Farrell has written a book that is not only beautiful and moving — it's saucy.