Book reviews, Costa Book Awards, Historic, Literary fiction

Review: The Words in My Hand

The Words in My Hand  is one of books battling it out to bag the new novel prize in this year’s Costa Book Awards. It’s the third novel I’ve read in this category, and the seventh in my challenge to read the new novel and novel categories before the winners are announced in January.

The Words in my Hand

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

The Words in My Hand  is the reimagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in  17th-century Amsterdam, who works for Mr Sergeant the English  bookseller. When a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the  Monsieur – Mr Sergeant insists everything must be just so. It transpires  that the Monsieur is René Descartes.

This is Helena’s story: the  woman in front of Descartes, a young woman who yearns for knowledge, who  wants to write so badly she makes ink from beetroot and writes in  secret on her skin – only to be held back by her position in society.

Weaving  together the story of Descartes’ quest for reason with Helena’s  struggle for literacy, their worlds overlap as their feelings deepen;  yet remain sharply divided. For all Descartes’ learning, it is Helena he  seeks out as she reveals the surprise in the everyday world that  surrounds him.

When reputation is everything and with so much to  lose, some truths must remain hidden. Helena and Descartes face a  terrible tragedy and ultimately have to decide if their love is possible  at all.

What’s good about it?

Glasfurd is a strong writer and her prose will transport you into the world of 17th Century Holland immediately. Her descriptions are vivid and enveloping, and there is a sumptuousness to her narrative that is really captivating.

The relationship between Helena and Descartes is interesting and intriguing, and its slow-burning passion is the main focus of the first half of the novel. There are some racy bits as well as scenes of true sensitivity that work well in depicting the burgeoning courtship.

Bookworms and writers will enjoy Helena’s obsession with the written word, and the lengths she goes to to ensure she can continue to write. Her attempts to break through the patriarchy of Dutch commerce to sell her writing and illustrations to booksellers is a noble cause – and something I would have liked to read more about.

What’s not so good about it?

I found the second half of this book a chore to finish as nothing much happened. Once Helena is with child and moves away, the pace of the narrative dissipates and the plot, for me, lots its focus.

For all this is based on a true story, these characters could have been anybody. It seemed incidental that Helena’s lover was Descartes rather than a core feature of the narrative – the things that happened to her because she was with him (ie being abandoned, unmarried with a child) have happened ten times over in stories about the affairs between rich men and their maids.

Comparisons between The Girl in the Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist have been drawn to this book, which I think are fair given the setting and subject matter. However, Glasfurd’s narrative isn’t as strong as those tales and lacked the plotlines and suspense to sustain my intrigue for its 430 pages.

I liked Glasfurd’s writing and The Words in my Hand is a successful debut on many levels – but it just didn’t wow me for the entire ride.

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