Book Review – When I First Held You by Anstey Harris

First published, 2023

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

And this is a really hard book to review without giving out a whole bunch of spoilers, so I’m going to watch myself a bit here, folks.

The story follows the history of Jude. A young woman in the 1960s, Jude has left her parents’ house with their emergency money and made her way to a political collective in Scotland, in the footsteps of the dashing young priest who her mother idolises. The group lives in a squat, it’s rundown and pretty icky, but being young people, they don’t really notice and even if they do, they don’t much care. As the group sets out their ideals and their plan for action, Jude rapidly falls in love with Jimmy, and the couple is very happy together for a few blissful months before everything goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Alone, but not completely, and writing frantic letters to Jimmy’s family home, Jude is in a bad way. Such were the times, an unmarried mother could only hope to keep her baby if she got married immediately or could convince her parents to raise the child as their own. This sounds like fiction, but is all too real. It is heartbreaking and unsettling to realise how poorly our society treated people with feelings – we’re not even talking about a crime, here – not all that long ago.

Years later, Jude, now Judith, who has spent fifty-some years mourning her loss but having had the comfort of partner, Catherine, for most of that time, runs into Jimmy, now James, and her world is upended again. They are both widowed, but perhaps what once was broken can be mended.

The writing is stunning. One of my absolute favourite authors, there’s no question Anstey Harris has one of the strongest and most powerful voices in literature today. Her ability to convey complex emotions and tumultuous times is, for me, without peer, and she has an astonishing ability to pull the reader in to even the most painful atmosphere without choking them on it. 

I don’t want to give a whole bunch of spoilers, but I’ll say this: you can read the story flatly, as is, without reading too much beyond the words. But, for those of us who read it more than once, and back to back, I think the story goes much deeper than that. This is my third attempt at writing this review because I’ve had to keep going back and deleting certain thoughts that might distract other readers.

But as you insist: for what it’s worth, I think this is the story of a woman who has been stomped on by societal expectations. Of course there’s the great tragedy of her life, which comes, as many tragedies do, in waves of terrible sadness, and I do not wish to minimise that. But there’s also the new pressure of modern culture that insists that our labels and the identities we cling to don’t have to define us for ever. Is it for the sake of a new relationship, without too much mess and disappointment, that the ending turns the way it does, or is this really what Judith wants?

I’m not sure. But when you’re looking from separate perspectives on a major event from fifty-some years ago, there’s a better than average chance that no two recollections will completely mesh, and when your character witnesses are mostly dead… I feel a Maya Angelou quote coming on.

Turns out, I’m a deeply suspicious person. So, I’ve learnt something about myself and you only get that from great literature. I’m going to be thinking about this novel for a long time.