The Hand That First Held Mine, By Maggie O'Farrell

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The Independent Culture

Since her early novels After You'd Gone and My Lover's Lover, Maggie O'Farrell's fiction has been touched by the otherwordly. In this new book - winner of the 2010 Costa Novel Award - she exchanges the more febrile expressions of romantic love for a haunting tale of the baby blues.

Told over two time frames, the novel opens in the 1950s as Lexie Sinclair, a bored young graduate, leaves her country home in Devon to start over in Soho. Taken under the wing of Innes Kent, a magazine editor 13 years her senior, she finds herself at the heart of the post-war art scene, trading witticisms with the barflies of Dean Street and discovering the pleasures of Jackson Pollock and pink gin.

She learns how to write and how to dress, and survives a devastating loss. Back in present-day London, Finnish artist Elina is recovering from the difficult birth of her first child. As Elina struggles to recall the details of a botched Caesarean, her partner Ted is hit by a series of blackouts.

Memories from his own childhood seem to be crowding his vision, leaving him little time to care for the people who need him most. Just as Elina starts to surface from her post-partum panic and get back to her paints, Ted takes to lying down in a darkened room.

The domestic details of Elina and Ted's fraught confinement are well drawn - new parents will empathise - though the precise nature of their relationship, which verges on the remote, remains a mystery. In contrast, lounge lizards Innes and Lexie enjoy a much more robust, passionate affair. The only obstacle to their happiness seems to be the presence of Innes's stalker-ish ex-wife and unhinged teenage daughter. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that past and present are connected, though the historical plot outshines the contemporary storyline throughout.

Vanishings, ghostly apparitions and buried secrets have long been hallmarks of O'Farrell's fashionable fiction. Yet in a novel already immersed in blood, sweat, tears and baby wipes, the more fanciful flourishes feel a little forced. The book tears down the walls between the generations and, in an inspired upending of convention, places a father's post-natal ravings centre-stage.