When I First Held You by Anstey Harris

It seems like I’ve been waiting forever for a new Anstey Harris book. I adored both Anstey’s previous books The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton reviewed here and Where We Belong reviewed here. Consequently I was delighted to be invited onto the blog tour for her latest book, When I First Held You. My enormous thanks to Rhiannon at FMcM Associates for inviting me and for providing a copy of When I First Held You in return for an honest review.

When I First Held You will be published by Lake Union on 24th January 2023 and is available for purchase here.

When I First Held You

Silence tore them apart. Can the truth bring them back together?

In 1960s Glasgow, anti-nuclear activists Judith and Jimmy fall in love. But their future hopes are dashed when their protestors’ squat is raided and many, including Jimmy, are sent to prison. Pregnant and with no word from Jimmy, Judith is forced to enter an unmarried mothers’ home, give up their baby and learn to live with her grief.

More than half a century later, Judith’s Mending Shop restores broken treasures, just as Judith herself has been bound back together by her late, much-missed partner, Catherine. But her tranquillity is shattered when Jimmy―so different and yet somehow the same―reappears, yearning to unpick the painful past.

Realising they each know only half of the other’s story, Jimmy and Judith finally break the silence that tore apart what might have been their family. Amid heartbreak and hope, how much can now be mended?

My Review of When I First Held You

From the very first sentence of an Anstey Harris book the reader knows they are about to encounter something very special indeed and When I First Held You is no exception. It’s fabulous. It’s breath-taking. It’s exceptional. 

Anstey Harris’ writing is exquisite. Her attention to detail, balanced by a spare and intense prose, means that reading her words is akin to shining the most powerful laser onto the tiniest atoms and making them leap alive with vitality and meaning. I found this almost painful to experience. This is by no means a criticism, but rather an expression of the immense effect her words have on the reader. When I First Held You is utterly compelling and affecting because Judith’s experiences and emotions become the reader’s experiences and emotions. This is not a book you read. It’s one you feel with visceral certainty. 

What makes When I First Held You so strong is the balance of personal and political experience. Anstey Harris illustrates how everything we do in our personal lives is influenced by the political environment we exist in, even when we don’t realise it. The force of Judith’s feelings about James is rooted in their past, their shared experiences and the personal and political narrative Judith has created in her life. I thought this was a profound and truly wonderful aspect of the writing, especially when seemingly ‘outside’ events are weighed against personal narratives and the stories we make for ourselves. Through Judith the reader is given a privileged glimpse into the very soul of human nature. 

The plot is so skilfully crafted as Judith’s past is interwoven with her present. And Judith is such a complex and layered character. Driven by extremes of love, bitterness and rage, she embodies humanity in its raw state. I loved meeting her. I adored too, the maturity of her age. When I First Held You simply couldn’t have been about a younger woman. The narrative needs her complexities, her insecurities and her strengths. She is the full sum of her 75 year old self. 

The touchstone of Judith’s friend Barbara adds lightness and humour in an almost Shakespearean light relief that perfectly balances the sheer emotion of Judith’s feelings. And I loved the underpinning theme also shown through the cover illustration that broken things can become repaired and more beautiful. Judith’s past and long held beliefs become shattered and fractured and yet they simultaneously become more valuable and exquisite in a kind of literary Kintsugi.

It’s hard to express how much I adored When I First Held You. It’s powerful, raw, emotional and totally outstanding. You’ll find it hard to read a more impactful book this year. When I First Held You is a magnificent book written by the genius writer that is Anstey Harris. Do not miss it. 

About Anstey Harris

Anstey Harris is based by the seaside in south-east England where she lives with her violinmaker husband and two dogs. She teaches creative writing in the community, local schools, and occasionally as an associate lecturer for Christchurch University in Canterbury. If you’d like to have a go at some writing exercises with Anstey, head over to Instagram and look at her IGTV channel, where she also interviews authors about their journeys and tips for writing.

Anstey writes about the things that make people tick, the things that bind us and the things that can rip us apart. In 2015, she won the H G Wells Short Story Prize for her story, Ruby and The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton (a Richard and Judy pick for July 2019) won the RNA Sapere Books Romantic Novel of the Year title in 2020.

In novels, Anstey tries to celebrate uplifting ideas and prove that life is good and that happiness is available to everyone once we work out where to look (usually inside ourselves). She enjoys writing issue-driven books where the issues take a back seat to the characters. Her short stories tend not to resolve quite so well and often feature sticky ends…

Things that interest Anstey include her children and grandchildren, green issues and conservation, adoption and adoption reunion (she is an adopted child, born in an unmarried mothers’ home in Liverpool in 1965), dogs, and food. Always food. She would love to be on Masterchef but would never recover from the humiliation if she got sent home in the first round.

You can follow Anstey on Twitter @Anstey_Harris, find her on Instagram and visit her website.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

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