24th February 2017
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The Words in my Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd, historical novel set in the Netherlands.
I had been eyeing this novel up for a while, having been drawn to the fetching cover of the hardback edition. My interest was further piqued when it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2016.
It is a story based on the relationship that developed between Helena Jans and the philosopher René Descartes. Helena arrives in Amsterdam in 1634, and is taken into service as a scullery maid by Englishman Mr Sergeant, the owner of a bookshop. It’s a rather chaotic set-up, the whole interior needs the delicate touch of a woman, particularly as The Monsieur is coming to stay. René Descartes himself is due to spend a little time at these lodgings in Amsterdam.
The harshness of Helena’s life and her ilk is painstakingly described, the details of her daily routines, the grim routines, squalor and hardship of life. She can already write, and being in a literary household, she longs to further her skils, experimenting to find suitable inks amongst the everyday household items. This is a time when the printed word is in its infancy and the tools for writing were at a premium. Women, and especially women of a lowly class, did not have the opportunity to learn the skills of penmanship. Beetroot ink as a substitute? Perfectly possible.
After a dinner in the household, and an unwanted advance from a male guest, the relationship between the two starts to take shape. Theirs, of course, is a liaison that is best kept under wraps, even though they sire a child between them.
Moving from Amsterdam to Deventer, Leiden, Santpoort and Amersfoort, there is a rich fabric that rolls the relationship along at a languorous pace, ever conscious of the restrictive mores of the time, and always with an eye on the play and use of words. The content of the book is reflected in a beautiful writing style that brings the period to vibrant life.
I personally did struggle, at times, to connect with the characters and their relationships, although really appreciated the meticulous research of time and place. At times the narrative felt just a little flat, flat like the landscape in which the novel is set. Yet, it remains hauntingly with me long after I read it. It deserves a much wider audience than it is perhaps currently getting.
Tina for the TripFiction Team