Saturday, 24 December 2016

The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

Thinking of René Descartes, who doesn’t recall his much quoted maxim, I think therefore I am. Debut novelist, Guinevere Glasfurd, explores a little known aspect of Descartes’ life - his relationship with Dutch housemaid, Helena Jans. Sent by her impoverished mother to earn a living in Amsterdam, Helena is taken on by an English bookseller, Mr Sergeant. The house with its books and visiting intellectuals only encourages Helena’s deep wish to improve her reading and learn to write.

1600s Amsterdam would appear to have been a safe haven for ground-breaking thinker, René Descartes, whose theories inspired accusations of heresy. Thrown together, Descartes finds in Helena a young mind who reveals to him surprises in the commonplace, while Helena finds encouragement to pursue her skills with ink and paper. The two form a bond that transcends their differences in age, station and religion, but it is a relationship beset by secrecy, shame and tragedy.

The Words in My Hand is a brilliant historical read, both vivid and sensual, while at the same time depicting a period when thinkers of the day were grasping with how to explain and measure the everyday world. The characterisation of the two main characters really draws the reader in as they are both complex and sympathetic. What they go through together will tug on your heartstrings, while I loved the way Glasfurd brought seventeenth century Holland to life. I want to look up pictures by the Dutch landscape masters in order to stay there for a while longer.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue link: The Words in My Hand

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