When I First Held You by Anstey Harris is a deeply moving, emotionally honest drama about historical wrongs that echo through generations. Read my review.
When I First Held You Book Synopsis
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?
(Lake Union Publishing, January 2023)
Genre: Drama, Literature, Historical
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Anstey Harris’ The Museum of Forgotten Memories was one of my best books of 2020. It was deeply moving and uplifting fiction, not afraid to challenge perceptions and powered by emotional honesty. So I already knew the author would explore When I First Held You’s traumatic subject matter with uncommon sensitivity, perceptiveness and nuance. Then, when I learned this fiction drew on her own lived experience, I was confident the grief contained would be worth traversing.
When I First Held You is a journey of emotional, historical and personal discovery for both its characters and its readers, so I am loathe to pre-empt its several ‘reveals’ in this review. Suffice to say, there are many threads for book clubs to unpack. Instead, I will discuss the elements I found most striking and impactful about this story’s execution.
With a captivating alternating first-person narrative, Harris cleverly dials up the volume of the female voice and perspective, specifically incorporating that of a younger generation, that which was historically ‘unheard’. But she does so metaphorically… there is no shouting. And, most importantly, she does so without diminishing the male characters. (In fact, they are wonderful also.) Regardless of gender, their power stems from purpose of action, compassion, endurance and resilience. From seeking to better understand their own, and others motivations; and from supporting each other.
Loss and discovery
Yes, When I First Held You interrogates grief and loss in its myriad forms – of lost love, lost company and support, and most devastatingly, lost opportunity and lost hope. It shines a light on the untold damage that can be inflicted by the best of intentions.
“I struggle to remember the difference between forgiving and forgetting, I know that you can live with one and that the other will eventually destroy you.”
But, it is also a thought-provoking exploration of the perils of judgement without full context and information, and the treasures that can be found in new perspectives and experiences, new comradery and companionship, no matter our age. And, there is of course authentic humour when moments in real life call for it too.
Harris’ prose exudes a highly accessible literary sensibility that is just a pleasure to read. The unbridled emotional honesty is both heartrending and heartwarming, yet staunchly authentic.
When I First Held You is another deeply moving read from Anstey Harris…. an author with important things to say and a very special talent for doing so without judgement. Highly recommended for book club discussion.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5
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More When I First Held You reviews
“This profound story of loss delivers an emotional gut punch but also displays human resilience. Recommended for fans of Jodi Picoult.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Entirely heartfelt and not given to melodrama, When I First Held You is a beautiful story about love, family, and forgiveness. It’s a fascinating look at a period of history that is best kept exactly where it is – in the past. Five stars to this one from Anstey Harris, who always seems to know just how to tug on your heartstrings.” – Theresa SmithWrites
“Above all else, the word that When I First Held You most brings to mind is honesty. The stories these characters have to tell resonate with heartbreaking truth that is impossible to deny.” – Britt’s Book Blurbs
About the Author, Anstey Harris
Anstey Harris was born in an unmarried mothers’ home in Liverpool in 1965. Now a mother and stepmother herself, she lives in Scotland. She has been inspired by her family history, and hopes to give a voice to the women and children―16,000 a year during the 1960s in the UK―separated from each other by forced adoptions.
Anstey won the H. G. Wells Short Story Award in 2015 and her debut novel, The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton, a Richard and Judy Book Club choice, won the Sapere Books RNA Popular Romantic Fiction Award in 2020. Her second novel, Where We Belong, was shortlisted for the RNA Book of the Year Award 2021. The Museum of Forgotten Memories her third novel, and this When I First Held You her fourth.
* My receiving a copy from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions.