The Words in My Hand is the re-imagined 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 René 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.
This was one of those books which took me a while to get into. The story begins slowly, the focus almost entirely upon maid Helena and her mundane (although not uninteresting) routine, to the point where the reader begins to wonder if they will ever enjoy more than a fleeting glimpse of Monsieur Descartes. In those early chapters, we do see plenty of mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam, with Glasfurd’s rich descriptions leaving the reader feeling as though they are in the midst of it all. Nonetheless by a third of the way through the book, I was beginning to wonder when the story would begin.
Patience, however, proved to have its rewards and as the story between Helena and Descartes took off, the value in those earlier chapters becomes clear. We learn, for example, of Helena’s thirst for knowledge, her eagerness to learn to write and, implicitly, her determination to improve her lot. Glasfurd’s fluent and engaging prose paints a clear picture of Helena’s character and by the end of the novel I was heavily invested in her, sharing her triumphs, her tribulations and her disappointments.
By contrast, Glasfurd keeps Descartes at arms’ length. There is always an air of mystery about him; a sort of unknown quantity. I suspect that this was intentional but at times it could be frustrating – for reader and Helena alike! Nonetheless, the relationship which develops between Helena and Descartes is as heart-warming as it is unconventional, albeit still constrained by the social norms of their time, a fact which was always going to be to Helena’s great disadvantage. The ending is quite a punch in the gut for even the most stoic bookworm and, reader beware, don’t look up either Descartes or Helena on Wikipedia until you have reached the end, otherwise you will spoil the ending!
Overall, an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, slow to start but well-written and vividly drawn. Four stars.