I was so pleased to hear that Maggie O'Farrell had won her first major literary prize this week, the Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine. Thoroughly well deserved and here's hoping it leads to an upsurge in backlist exploration too because this one's a cracker.
Whenever I have written about Maggie O'Farrell here in the past, namely The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and The Hand That First Held Mine, you all come on in comments or e mail to tell me I must read her first novel After You'd Gone, so I have and most of it on the train up and down to London a while back, when I did the journey twice in a single week.
Train reading crucially has to have the power to engross me sufficiently that I don't notice anything going on around me, especially now I'm not in the Quiet Coach as per new strategy, so the mobile conversation snippets do their best to invade...
'Yes well I told him that was completely unacceptable....'
'We've had loads of complaints you know...'
'I've &*$%& missed the %&*$%& connection, I'm going to be %$&*$ hours'
Those books feel quite rare so all power to After You'd Gone and if you have a journey coming up, (or even if you haven't) here's one for your consideration.
Slowly but with great certainty Maggie O'Farrell sows the seeds of the dysfunctional Raikes family and misfit youngest daughter Alice, the family odd-ball, her mother Ann sparsely equipped by her own childhood to cope with parenting her own girls, Ben the shadowy and almost invisible father, Ben's all-seeing mother Elspeth, the lover John and there you have a seemingly ordinary cast around whom Maggie O'Farrell weaves her intricate tale.
It is no spoiler to tell you that this is a book that works back and forth in time and tense from the opening chapters when a distraught Alice steps in front of a car in London and is rushed to hospital where she lies in a coma. Ben and Ann rush down from the family home in Berwick to be at her bedside and there is much to be revealed and as Alice lies unconscious much of that past is mediated through her voice. Present tense writing is an entirely forgiveable (sorry, I still struggle with it) writing strategy in the hands of Maggie O'Farrell because she slips in and out of it for well-defined reasons that I quickly discovered offered me a compass bearing in the book. Where I was, who I was with and when instantly became clear and in amongst plenty of third person past tense reflections and recollections which make up a good deal of the novel.
It's almost impossible to say more about plot without giving away those special moments that make a good book so good, the dawning revelations that are held back, the reader drip-fed towards their discovery, but the age-old timeless themes of love, guilt and grief prevail and as a dissection of the excruciating agony of loss and the dark pain of mourning this book excels without being overtly miserable or even melancholy.
There are some stunningly clever little devices too, which only dawned on me as I thought about the book in those days after the final page is turned. Ann and Alice's fraught mother-daughter relationship connected by seperate and entirely different incidents years apart involving an envelope and its contents. The sudden and very definite redistribution of my sympathies days afterwards and the tiny slip of a moment, a glimpse of an event in the first few pages of such deep significance and one that slowly returns to haunt the reader towards the end of the book.
That's a lot of baggage and writerly skill to pack into one book, and though I feel sure I'm preaching to the converted, if you haven't read Maggie O'Farrell and you tend to enjoy the books I usually write about here, then I hope, to the point of almost being certain, that you won't be disappointed with this one.