Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Words in my Hand

The Words in My Hand is the debut novel from Guinevere Glasfurd and tells the story of Helena Jans a Dutch maid in the 17th Century who became the lover of philosopher Rene Descartes. Helena is a powerful character determined to read, write and learn about the world. Initially hired by Mr. Sergeant, the bookseller because she could write, she is fascinated by the world of books. However she is soon relegated to the kitchen and without access to writing materials she experiments with making her own ink; using charcoal, soot even blood before finally settling on beetroot, and without paper she writes on her own skin.

When Descartes comes to lodge with the bookseller Helena finds his work and experiments fascinating but divided by social class and religion their affair must remain a secret. Over the next few years as Descartes struggles to write and to have his ideas accepted Helena raises his child in secret as neither a maid nor a wife. This is a fascinating book fleshing out the life of a real woman and her story; it brings to vivid life the frustrations of women who were denied access to education and art. In an age when reputation meant everything and to be different often meant to be beaten down Helena stands as an icon facing challenges as desperate as those faced by Descartes. Despite this Glasfurd is honest about the reality of their unequal relationship as Helena must regularly take second place. Fans of The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist will love this fascinating tale.

This review was first published in HNR 75 see it here

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