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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He is so taken aback that for a moment he is speechless (not something to which he is accustomed) and he watches, fascinated, as the woman stands up from her tree stump. The della Francesca madonna morphs before his very eyes into a version of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. What a sight! The woman coming towards him down the raised lawn echoes Duchamp’s effect exactly! Her anger seems to spike the very air!

Innes has been steeped in the Dadaists of late, so much so that two nights previously he had a dream entirely within one of their paintings. ‘My second favourite dream’, he rates it. (The first is too graphic to relate.)

‘It is also,’ the madonna is bearing down on him, jaw set, hands on hips, and he has to say he is rather glad of the hedge between them, ‘illegal. I am perfectly within my rights to summon a policeman.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ he manages to say. ‘My car. It seems to have broken down. I’m looking for a garage.’

‘Does this look like a garage to you?’ Her voice is not, as he might have expected, smoothed with a Devonian burr but sharp and cut like a diamond.

‘Um. No. It does not.’

‘Well, then,’ she is advancing ever closer to her side of the hedge, ‘goodbye.’

As she says this, Alexandra gets her first proper look at the peeping Tom. He has hair quite a bit longer than she has ever seen on a man. His shirt has an unusually high collar and is daffodil yellow. His suit is light grey needle cord and has no collar at all; the tie he is wearing is the colour of duck eggs. Alexandra comes two steps closer. Daffodils, her mind reiterates, duck eggs.

‘I wasn’t spying,’ the man is protesting, ‘I assure you. I’m seeking aid. I find myself in a bit of a fix. My car has broken down. Would you happen to know of a garage near here? I don’t mean to tear you away from your baby but I have to be back in London sharpish as I have a print deadline. Nightmare upon nightmare. Any assistance and I’m your grateful slave.’

She blinks. She has never heard anyone speak like this before. Sharpish, fix, print deadline, nightmare upon nightmare, grateful slave. She would like to ask him to say it all again. Then part of the speech filters through to her. ‘It’s not my baby,’ she snaps. ‘It’s nothing to do with me. It’s my mother’s.’

‘Ah.’ The man inclines his head sideways. ‘I’m not sure I would categorise that as nothing to do with you.’

‘Wouldn’t you?’

‘No. It must at least be acknowledged as your sibling.’

There is a slight pause. Alexandra tries, without success, not to examine his clothes again. The shirt, that tie. Daffodils and eggs. ‘You’re from London, then?’ she asks.

‘I am.’

She sniffs. She adjusts the scarf across her forehead. She examines the bristles on the man’s chin and wonders why he hasn’t shaved. And, unfathomably, a half-formed plan of hers crystallises into a definite desire. ‘I’m planning,’ she says, ‘on going to live in London myself.’ ‘Is that so?’ The man starts to rummage animatedly in his pockets. He brings out an enamelled green cigarette case, removes two cigarettes and offers her one. She has to lean over the hedge to take it.

‘Thank you,’ she says. He lights it for her, cupping the match in his hands, then uses the same match on his own cigarette. Close up, she thinks, he smells of hair-oil, cologne and something else. But he moves back before she can identify it.

‘ Thanks,’ she says again, indicating the cigarette, and inhales.

‘And what,’ the man says, as he shakes out the match and tosses it aside, ‘may I ask, is holding you back?’

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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