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The Words in My Hand is the reimagined 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.
"Words, Helena, words are another matter. Words pin me to the page."
Helena de Jans was a maid for an English bookseller in Amsterdam, where René Descartes lodged in 1634. A year later, she gave birth to his daughter, Francine. Their affair was innocent to begin with, she his student of sorts and intrigued by his investigations.
"Discoveries must be all about us, waiting to be found, in the most ordinary places of all - even in candles and flames."
Time spent alone together, quickly progressed to an affair. I appreciate how the author has tried to imagine the life of Helena through what material she could find, supposing how their relationship may have developed and what life may have been like. What I believe Glasfurd does very well is bring to life the streets of Amsterdam through characters and places as the story unfolds.
"Loneliness is not the same as being alone; one can choose to be alone, seek it out, desire it perhaps. Loneliness asserts itself."
Unfortunately for me, the story was a little slow, rarely progressing. The ending I found to be rather peculiar. At 85% a new beau was presented which was strange after being slow for so long. Then, all of a sudden, in what I considered to be basically an epilogue of sorts, years were described in a matter of pages. I found this confusing and hard to digest.
Overall a satisfying read if somewhat slow.
"He smiled faintly, but still looked sad. 'Helena, Helena ... we all know our place in the end."