My enormous thanks to Ruby Mitchell at Hodder for a copy of The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd in return for an honest review. The Words in My Hand is published by Two Roads Books, an imprint of John Murray Press, in e-book now and hardback on 14th January 2017 with the paperback available on 9th February.
Today I have my review of The Words in My Hand, but I loved it so much I asked Guinevere if she’d be interviewed about it so do please come back on paperback publication day 9th February 2017, to find out more.
The Words in My Hand
The Words in My Hand is the re-imagined 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.
Helena’s life, like that of so many women in history in history, is scarcely recorded. In The Words in My Hand she is 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 as a servant, and as a woman.
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, Helena has much to teach him about emotion and love.
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.
My Review of The Words in My Hand
When housemaid Helena encounters the infamous René Descartes, two totally disparate world collide with surprising effects.
My goodness The Words in My Hand is a wonderful, wonderful book. Shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award 2016 it represents the kind of novel that epitomises perfect literary fiction for me.
Unique in style, Guinevere Glasfurd has an authorial voice that is almost mystical and draws in the reader so that the more of Helena’s story was revealed, the more hypnotised by the writing I became. At the risk of sounding pretentious, the writing reminded me of a stained glass window lit by the sun. The variety of sentence length and structure in the first person narrative approach was so beautiful to read. So many things came into exquisite focus for me reading The Words in My Hand. The quality of the descriptions is such that I was there with Helena in Amsterdam and Sandpoort in particular. Also, I had studied Descartes at university but had never really got an impression of the man and had certainly not thought about the women of the time. However, Guinevere Glasfurd’s meticulous research and fabulous writing was both thought provoking – how might women have fared – and enlightening. I felt I really knew and understood the two main characters, Helena and Descartes perfectly. This really is history brought to vivid life.
Whilst there is a great plot as the relationship between Helena and Descartes develops, along with wonderful characterisation, what really made The Words in My Hand such an enthralling read for me was the exploration of language and the way in which it defines, constrains and liberates us as individuals. Helena’s desire for education and literacy underpin her entire being, and I felt there was a really intellignet feminist message without it being clumsy and inelegant. I found myself savouring the single word chapter titles, thinking back over the chapter and reflecting on how apt they were. The Words in My Hand is not a book to be rushed, but to be appreciated almost syllable by syllable. It is very special indeed and I adored it.
About Guinevere Glasfurd
Guinevere Glasfurd’s lives on the edge of the Fens near Cambridge. Her short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, the Scotsman and in a collection from The National Galleries of Scotland. The Words In My Hand, her first novel, was written with the support of a grant from Arts Council England. Guinevere Glasfurd manages the Words and Women Twitter feed, a voluntary organisation representing women writers in the East of England. You can find out more on her website.