Excerpt from The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Hand that First Held Mine

A Novel

by Maggie O'Farrell

The Hand that First Held Mine
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2010, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2011, 352 pages

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She is closing her eyes to the sea, to the presence of the castaside book, when there is the sound of feet thudding through grass and a voice, saying, ‘Sandra?’

She snaps upright as if she has received an electric shock. ‘Alexandra!’ she corrects. This is her name, given to her at birth, but her mother later decided she didn’t like it and shortened it to its final syllables.

‘Alexandra,’ the child repeats obediently. ‘Mother says, “What are you doing and will you come in and—”’

‘Away!’ Alexandra screams. ‘Go away!’ And she returns crossly to her stump, to the book, to her analysis of Death and its needless pride.

At the exact same moment, half a mile away, Innes Kent - aged thirty-four, art dealer, journalist, critic, self-confessed hedonist - is kneeling on the dirt to examine the underside of his car. He has no idea what he is looking for but feels that he ought to look anyway. He is ever the optimist. The car is a silver and ice-blue MG; Innes loves it more than almost anything else in the world and it has just ground to a standstill at the side of this country lane. He straightens up.

And he does what he does in most situations that frustrate him: he lights a cigarette. He gives the wheel an experimental kick, then regrets it.

Innes has been in St Ives, visiting the studio of an artist whose work he’d been hoping to buy. He had found the artist rather drunk and the work far from completion. The whole excursion has been a raging disaster. And now this. He grinds his cigarette underfoot, then sets off down the lane. He can see a cluster of houses ahead, the curved wall of a harbour reaching out into the sea. Someone will know the whereabouts of a garage, if they have garages in this godforsaken place.

Alexandra does not - cannot - know the proximity of Innes Kent. She doesn’t know that he is coming, getting ever closer with every passing second, walking in his hand-made shoes along the roads that separate them, the distance between them shrinking with every wellshod step. Life as she will know it is about to begin but she is absorbed, finally, in her reading, in a long-dead man’s struggle with mortality.

As Innes Kent turns into her road, Alexandra raises her head. She places the book on the ground again, this time more gently, and stretches, her arms held high. She twirls a strand of hair between finger and thumb, hooks a daisy between her toes and plucks it - she has always had gymnastic joints; it is something of which she is rather proud. She does this again and again until all eight gaps between her toes hold the frank yellow eye of a daisy.

Innes comes to a halt beside a gap in a thick hedge. He peers through. A pretty sort of country house with bushes, grass, flowers, that kind of thing - a garden, he supposes. Then he sees, close by, seated under a tree, a woman. Innes’s interest never fails to be piqued by the proximity of a woman.

This specimen is without shoes, hair held off her neck in a yellow scarf. He raises himself on tiptoe to see better. The most exquisite column of a neck, he decides. If he were pressed to write a description of it, he would be forced to employ the word ‘sculptural’ and possibly even ‘alabaster’, which are not terms he would bandy about lightly. Innes’s background is in art. Or perhaps ‘foreground’ would be a more accurate term. Art is not a background for Innes. It is what he breathes, what makes life continue; he looks and he doesn’t see a tree, a car, a street, he sees a potential still-life, he sees an interplay of light and shade and colour, he sees a deliberate arrangement of chosen objects.

And what he sees when he looks at Alexandra in her yellow scarf and blue dress is a scene from a fresco. Innes believes he is beholding a perfect rural madonna, in profile, in a marvellously - he thinks - tight-fitting blue frock, with her baby slumbering a few feet away. He shuts one eye and regards the scene first with one eye, then the other. Really, it’s a beautiful composition, with the tree overhead counterpointed by the flat stretch of grass and the uprightness of the woman and her neck. He would like to see it painted by one of the Italian masters, by Piero della Francesca or Andrea del Sarto perhaps. She can even pick flowers with her toes! What a creature! Innes is smiling to himself, trying it out again with both eyes, when the scene is shattered by the madonna saying in a clear voice, ‘Don’t you know it’s very bad manners to spy on people?’

Excerpted from Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell. Copyright © 2010 by Maggie O'Farrell. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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