Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet).
A story of forbidden love, societal pressures and a quest for knowledge, Guinevere Glasfurd’s debut novel, The Words in my Hand, is reminiscient of The Miniaturist, one of my favourite books of 2014. Here’s the blurb:
The Words in my Hand is the reimagined 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 Rene Descartes. This is Helena’s story: the woman in front of Descartes, 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. 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, it is Helena he seeks out as she reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him.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.
Through the curious and watchful eyes of Helena Jans, Glasfurd brings Amsterdam of the 1600s to life. It’s a place where culture flourishes, where booksellers compete to publish books (written only by men), and thinkers like Rene Descartes seek epiphanies, revelations and understanding; it’s a time when the world’s first stock market is established through the Dutch East India Company trading its own shares, Catholicism is outlawed and the world’s first newspaper is printed. Exciting times of expansion philosophically, culturally and economically, but for women it’s still a status quo, living in the shadow of men, unable to study or do anything considered men’s business. Helena is born with a love of learning; when she comes to Amsterdam she already knows how to read. Yet, she yearns to write, to publish a book of her own; it comes as a shock to her that her beautifully illustrated alphabet book for children will not be published with her name on it. Already held back because of her gender, her pathway through life and love is littered with hurdles: her lover, Descartes, is Catholic, and a man of science (later philosophy) who cannot (will not?) afford to be publicly linked with someone of her lesser rank.
Fresh and deftly written, The Words in my Hand is a subtle and quiet character-driven novel that beautifully evokes time and place, as well as character. I enjoyed getting to know Helena, empathising with her struggles and identifying with her dreams.
Available from good bookstores (RRP $29.99AUD) and online in January 2016. My ARC was courtesy of Hachette.