3 Biggies. Motherhood, Religion and War

I am crazy late to the party with this book (which was published in 2010) but I am bloody glad I finally arrived. When I started my book club at work I asked everyone to recommend a book they loved. This book was recommended by Natalie who then gifted me her copy for my birthday. She kept asking me if I had finished it (obviously really excited for me to read it) and I kept telling her it was next on my ever increasing TBR list. I then had a change of heart. If someone gives me a book they would like me to read I have now decided it needs to be read imminently. I have often been frustrated when I have bought books for people and they never get round to reading them….utterly hypocritical of me and from now on this will stop. Stop I tell you!

So back to The hand that first held mine. The first thing I want to say is that O’Farrell is an author who does her research. The inspiration for the novel came from a trip to the Dean Gallery in 2002 which was showing an exhibition of John Deakin’s photographs. Says O’Farrell:

I didn’t know much about the art scene in Soho in the Fifties, but I was really struck by it, and the atmosphere of the novel fell into place.Telegraph

O’Farrell weaves the dual narrative of this novel perfectly. In the 1950s/60s setting of the book, Lexie leave her quiet Devon life to discover the ‘glorious technicolor’ of London. She is disowned by her parents when she begins a relationship with magazine editor Innes Kent. Lexie learns to become a journalist in the magazine offices in the heart of Soho. Without spoiling the story, life throws a lot at this strong heroine and we learn how she copes as a single mother in a very male dominated industry.

The modern day element of the story is also set in London and  follows Elina and Ted as they become parents for the first time. Elina, having had a very traumatic birth is struggling with the early days of her newborn. The pain of labour, the haziness of lack of sleep twinned with Ted suffering from his own demons…flashbacks and a feeling of detachment.

Ted sighs and slumps on the sofa, He had had no idea that having a baby would entail so much entertaining, so many visitors, so many phone calls and emails, so many pots of tea to be made, served, cleared away, washed up, the mere act of procreation meant that suddenly people wanted to come around several times a week and sit in your house for hours on end.

Ted clears away the tea tray. He walks about the sitting room, past Elina, who is wiping something off one part of the baby’s body while simultaneously smearing something on another, picking his way through toys, rattles, nappies, wipes, muslin squares. He gathers up stray coffee cups, cake plates, moves them from sitting room to the kitchen. Elina hands him the baby before getting down on her hands and knees and scrubbing at a stain – milk? sick? shit? – on the rug.

I love this extract. It takes me right back to the newborn phase where my husband and I ate copious amounts of cake and had the same conversation with everyone who came round. Later in the novel, Lexie has a similar passage about the early days of motherhood:

The shock of motherhood for Lexie, is not the sleeplessness, the troughs of exhaustion, the shrinkage of life, how your existence becomes limited to the streets around where you live, but the onslaught of domestic tasks: the washing and folding and the drying.


I loved the writing in both sections. Lexie’s sections were lively and fast paced which contrasted perfectly with the sleepy, hazy and slightly detached sections of Elina’s.

This book literally tore at my heart strings. The wonderfully evocative writing of Elina’s time after childbirth took my right back to the early days with my daughters. Lexie was a wonderful character. Strong, confident and not one of life’s victims. For me this is a book about motherhood. I found there were sections which I almost had to skim read as they were so painful and personal and as a mother, everything that O’Farrell writes completely makes sense:

Because no one will ever love them like you do. You know that no one will look after them like you do. You know that it is an impossibility, its unthinkable that you could be taken away, that you will have to leave them behind.

I was gutted when this book ended and I know it will stay with me for a very long time.

Like O’Farrell, Robert Harris is also an author who does his research and I really learned a lot from this book.

Firstly, the cover of this book really stood out. It is a beautiful, rich, red colour presumably linking to the colour of papal garments.

Having been to a catholic Convent school for a few years, religion has always interested me and after reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown I wanted to find out more about Conclave.

As the title of the book suggests, the Pope has died and there is to be a Conclave to elect his successor. Our protagonist is Lomeli, the Dean of the College and therefore charged with the daunting task of  running the Conclave and supervising the 118 Cardinals who have come from all over the world to elect the new Pope. Whilst educating us in the highly ritualistic Conclave, Harris writes a story which is a brilliant page turner. Showing us how politics, ambition and also some darker elements play their parts in the electing of the Head of the Catholic Church.

I really enjoyed the character of Lomeli. In him, Harris created a character I respected and admired. A man struggling with the physical aches and pains associated with old age but also the mental and spiritual struggles which come hand in hand with his faith.  Lomeli is a good man and a character we trust and admire.

To research the book, Harris was given a tour of the Vatican by the Pope’s master of ceremonies. So, having written the book, does Harris believe in God?

I think atheism is an easy route, a boring route to take. I am rather drawn to people who take a more difficult route and try to engage with a greater thing. I have empathy with that. catholicherald

In conclusion, if you like well researched, character led novels this is a great read.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of History at Yale Univerity. His latest book On Tyranny is his response to the recent American election. Without ever naming Trump, he gives Americans a 20 point lesson in resisting authoritarianism  and fascism. He uses examples from tyrannical regimes of the twentieth century to serve as a stark reminder and warning that should we not take responsibility for our own actions and thoughts, the worst will very likely happen and history may well repeat itself.

Snyder is no fan of Trump and makes stark references to the similarities between the President and Hitler and in particular, their rise to power.

During his campaign, the president claimed on a Russian propaganda outlet that “American media had been extremely dishonest.” He banned many reporters from his rallies, and regularly elicited hatred of journalists from the public. Like the leaders of authoritarian regimes, he promised to surpress freedom of speech by laws that would prevent criticism. Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking.

Snyder calls for us to go back to basics. In a world where social media has become the norm, people are questioning issues less and less. People make their decisions based on what they have seen on Facebook. People make political views based on tweets. The internet is playing too important a role. He calls out for the return of paper balloted elections as votes cannot be ‘tampered with and always recounted.’

I think the most powerful lesson was number 8. Stand Out. 

Someone has to. It is easy to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom.

Unlike the image of a murmuration on the front cover of the book, Snyder reminds us to make our own decisions and not to follow the crowd. Question things, think about the long term effects of your decisions and views.

Is Snyder perhaps a little guilty of hysteria?

He himself expresses sincere hope that the lessons in resistance will either not all be needed, or that they collectively have the desired effect of check and balance. He gives his fellow Americans the following warning however: ‘We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to facism, Nazism, or communism in the last century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from the experience.’The Guardian

This book is only 126 pages but the message within it is something we all need to read and reflect on.

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