Why I love Maggie O’Farrell
The first time someone in my ante-natal group, back in 2000, suggested to me I might like a book they’d just read, by an author called Maggie O’Farrell, I ignored it. I mean, not willingly, stubbornly ignored the advice but I just didn’t act on it. Sleep deprived with a new baby, the name soon slipped out of my consciousness. I could barely remember my own name some days.
And then, several years later, someone had left a book with a washed-out greeny-blue rather ethereal looking cover in the cottage where we were staying and I picked it up. There was that name again, half forgotten, like a whisper, a nudge of an elbow. I was gripped. The book was My Lover’s Lover, O’Farrell’s second novel. It tells the story of Lily, who moves into her new lover’s flat, but becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to his previous girlfriend. I saw that she had written one before this one – After You’d Gone – and sought that out, realising that this must have been the one my friend had originally recommended, and kicking myself for not taking her advice. I felt I was late to the party. But then there was nothing left of hers to read. And once more, I lost track of her.
And then, on my old blog, where I wrote about visiting a institution as a seven year old Brownie and a woman had mistaken me for her long lost daughter, someone commented, ‘this reminds me of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – have you read it?’ – and there was that name again. Like an old friend. Maggie O’Farrell.
I went straight out and bought it and whilst I was there, The Distance Between Us (my copy has irritatingly gone missing and I seem to have acquired two of My Lover’s Lover). The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox bears all her hallmarks – elegant, poetic, pared down, intense prose with shifting narratives and timelines, but affected me far more deeply. Then there is that ending – I had to read it several times to see if what I was reading is what the author intended, and I think it was. I’m sure it was.
I read it again, and several more times, trying to pick it apart – how does she manage the shifting tenses, how does she integrate the flashbacks, how do the stories knit together. In this interview on her website, she talks of doing just this to Mrs Dalloway and how it is almost impossible to do because it is so brilliantly written.
And then there was quite a long wait for her next -The Hand That First Held Mine (which she explains here). I rushed out on publication day and bought it in hardback -something I rarely do – and now I was hanging on her every word. It is a beautiful, expertly crafted novel and deservedly won the Costa. I was engaged with both strands of the dual narrative, alternating chapters between journalist Lexie Sinclair in 1950s Soho and present day Elina, battling through the fug of new motherhood after a traumatic birth, coupled with her husband’s Ted confusion at the newly emerging memories of his childhood.
I like a lot of authors I would perhaps class with her – or I’m told ’Readers Who Bought This, Also Bought…’ but for me, personally, she is the frontrunner, my favourite, the one I evangelise about to anyone who’ll listen. I think perhaps it is the themes that recur in her novels seem particularly pertinent to me and my own life and family history: the relationship between sisters, giving away babies, betrayal, loss, relatives turning out to be not quite who you thought they were, the long lasting repercussions of family secrets. I’m sure everyone sees their own story in her books somewhere and relates it to themselves and I’m not unique in that.
Towards the end of last year, little rumours began appearing that her new one would be out by Spring this year. A glimpse of the cover tweeted by Tinder Press (@tinderpress). The news that it was set in 1976 in the famous UK heatwave, that it starts with a husband who goes out one day and doesn’t come back. Booking a ticket to go and see her in person next week in London at Waterstones Piccadilly. Little things building up.
Are you a Maggie O’Farrell fan? Which is your favourite book?
Instructions for a Heatwave is published on February 28th.