Published by Two Roads Books. More information here.
Review by Louise Jones
It would be unfair to dismiss Glasfurd’s debut novel as a frothy romance, as implied by the premise: a maid at lodgings finds a kindred spirit and understanding like no other with the newest resident, Monsieur Rene Descartes. Instead, ‘The Words in My Hand’ tackles societal norms with a protagonist who endlessly strives for permission to live.
Glasfurd’s protagonist, Helena Jans, is based on a real woman, and the subtleties of her character show that Glasfurd has carefully considered how best to flesh out this focal point through whom we view 17th century Holland. As a maid, her social status compromises her ability to speak out in the face of prejudice. Glasfurd adds a touch of realism here in Helena’s carefully chosen silences – she isn’t a saucy, mouthy stereotype we see in historical dramas. Nor is she a demure figure, as she grows and hardens in a world determined to shun her. Instead, we see Helena as an intelligent young woman whose desires go against her position. Already feeling an outsider through her literacy, Helena pushes her freedom tentatively at first before seeing just how far it can go. This exploration is written with the utmost sympathy, and you can feel the pain of Helena’s restrictions bleeding through Glasfurd’s words.
Vivid descriptions bring Holland to life, whether it’s the side streets of Amsterdam or the vast cotton fields in the countryside. The emphasis is not directed down at the dirty streets of the 1600s, but cast up to the high spires of cathedrals. Even when Helena is cast out into obscurity, Glasfurd lingers on the dilapidated rooftops of cottages and the vast expanses of sand dunes along the coast: we always see Helena aiming above, staying hopeful and seeing the beauty of nature and religion around her. Helena’s religion is a source of hope, and it’s interesting to hear her faith spoken of with such reverence even when church authorities will not believe her stories. Glasfurd’s sympathy comes through here as well: Helena strays off the path of what’s expected of her, but she never falters in her loyalty and belief in a greater future.
The scandal of Helena’s relationship with Descartes, or Monsieur as he is referred to in the book, feels heated and brief as a quick burning candle. Theirs is a stilted relationship, but it is Helena’s relationships with the other characters around her which feel more fleshed out. She loves the Monsieur, but knows nothing about him. The reader, like Helena, is left to piece together the information they find strewn in the Monsieur’s wake. We feel a connection to him from his carefully crafted letters, a stark contrast to his reclusive self.
The novel has a tone of endless waiting, at once stifling and hopeful. Glasfurd leaves Helena alone with her own thoughts for a lot of the plot between flashes of action, but trapped in her headspace it never feels like the novel is dragging. Instead, her reflective narrative affords some respite from a truly heart-wrenching conclusion which tears at the defences Helena and the Monsieur have built up, finding fragile flawed creatures underneath.