Book Review: When I First Held You by Anstey Harris

About the Book:

Silence tore them apart. Can the truth bring them back together?

In 1960s Glasgow, anti-nuclear activists Judith and Jimmy fall in love. But their future hopes are dashed when their protestors’ squat is raided and many, including Jimmy, are sent to prison. Pregnant and with no word from Jimmy, Judith is forced to enter an unmarried mothers’ home, give up their baby and learn to live with her grief.

More than half a century later, Judith’s Mending Shop restores broken treasures, just as Judith herself has been bound back together by her late, much-missed partner, Catherine. But her tranquillity is shattered when Jimmy—so different and yet somehow the same—reappears, yearning to unpick the painful past.

Realising they each know only half of the other’s story, Jimmy and Judith finally break the silence that tore apart what might have been their family. Amid heartbreak and hope, how much can now be mended?

Published by Amazon Publishing UK Lake Union Publishing

Released 24th January 2023

My Thoughts:

The latest novel from Anstey Harris is a deeply personal one, so it’s better if I start this review with a quote from the very end of the novel, from the author note, for context:

‘I wrote Judith and Penny’s story to give me – and the half a million like me – a voice, and to remind those of you who have not been through this that it is an inhumanity we must never return to.’

When I First Held You is a story about the forced adoptions that were prolific throughout the 1960s and 1970s. I have previously read about this within novels set in Australia, America, and Ireland. It was interesting to read it within a UK setting. Interesting most of all to see the similarities – all involved parents who were acting out of shame, all involved girls being sent to homes run by the Catholic church, and all involved a total lack of regard for what the young women actually having a baby wanted, much less needed.

‘I struggle to remember the difference between forgiving and forgetting, I know that you can live with one and that the other will eventually destroy you.’

This story is told from the perspective of Judith, who was forced to give up her baby, and Ruby, her biological granddaughter. These two perspectives allowed for a sensitive balance within the story. James – aka Jimmy – has his perspective included via his interactions with both Judith and Ruby. You see, as the story progresses, just how much of an injustice was done to both Judith and Jimmy, by their own parents, whose well-meaning intentions caused nothing but grief with far-reaching consequences.

‘It’s partly that I haven’t shared this time with her – I have missed it and it can never be replayed. But it’s more than that – it’s the secrets and the joys. The memories of the conversations, the holidays, even the dark moments: none of which are mine.’

This story is so good though because it isn’t a simple blame game. It also outlines the social policies of the era, the lack of welfare, birth control, and independent options for young women who were pregnant and wanting to keep their babies. While you can acknowledge that what their parents did was entirely wrong, you also can acknowledge that they were acting out of a place where they too, didn’t know what else to do.

‘I am reminded of what I have always known: that it isn’t hope that moves mountains – mends hearts – it is unity.’

Entirely heartfelt and not given to melodrama, When I First Held You is a beautiful story about love, family, and forgiveness. It’s a fascinating look at a period of history that is best kept exactly where it is – in the past. Five stars to this one from Anstey Harris, who always seems to know just how to tug on your heartstrings. Thanks to her bravery as well for sharing, through the medium of fiction, aspects of her own personal family history.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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