In Your Hands
By Ines Pedrosa
Amazon Crossing; hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions; available this Tuesday, October 16
Portuguese novelist Inês Pedrosa’s prize-winning literary novel, In Your Hands, is about to be published for the first time in English by AmazonCrossing.
The novel, originally published as Nas Tuas Mãos, won Portugal’s top literary prize, the Prémio Máxima de Literatura, in 1997.
Two decades later, this story of about three generations of women united in their struggles to find their own ways in the world, with its themes of love, tolerance and acceptance, is sure to resonate more than ever.
This gorgeous translation crafted by acclaimed translator and Fulbright winner Andrea Rosenberg is Pedrosa’s first introduction to English language readers.
A story that is epic in scope and also deeply personal, In Your Hands begins in 1935 Portugal, in the grip of Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar’s authoritarian regime, where upper-class Jenny finds herself in an unusual situation.
Jenny’s beloved, charming husband António is gay, his lover Pedro lives with them, and she is the third wheel in the relationship. To keep up appearances, Jenny makes her peace with the unconventional arrangement. Husband and wife host salons for the political and cultural elite, and in private, the trio learns to find common ground and raise a daughter together.
Thirty years later, their daughter Camila, a photojournalist who has captured the revolutionary fervor and tragic loss of her family, as well as the country, reminisces about the man she lost her heart to—a guerrilla fighter she encountered during her travels through Mozambique.
Their brief love affair resulted in daughter Natália, a successful architect who provides the narrative for the third part of the novel. As she navigates Portugal’s complex history, and that of her own family, Natália discovers how the past and present have defined her and ponders what the future may hold.
In voices that are compelling and distinct, each woman tells part of the story in her old way. The old woman, Jenny, expresses herself through intimate journal entries; her daughter, Camila, with commentaries of photographs she has taken; and the granddaughter, Natalia, reveals her experience with letters written to her grandmother, many of which are never read by the intended recipient.
In this excerpt, Pedrosa writes in the voice of Jenny, “Every night of my life I thanked God for the gift of that ever-unchanging emotion. Many marriages collapsed, others swiftly decayed, swept up in the frenetic music of an increasingly troubled era, but ours remained pure, floating above the world’s tribulations.
At the end of the reception, the three of us went up the stairs, holding hands, seized by a fit of laughter. “Aren’t you going to carry your bride over the threshold?” someone asked, and you answered, “No, she’s the one leading us by the hand.” The girls let out little shrieks of excitement, called me a lion tamer, and tossed flowers at me. I felt dazed as the petals rained down, the champagne rising to the most lucid corners of my skull, opening all the doors that connect the soul to the entrails. In the dark hallway, the sound of your voice was as clear as a mirror: “Jennifer, darling, sweet girl, you’ll sleep in Pedro’s room. Go on and see if you want to change anything more to your liking. We want you to feel at home here, my dear.” Then you chucked me under the chin, Pedro planted a kiss on my head, and the two of you went into our bedroom, the one with my grandmother’s big four-poster bed and the intricately stitched linen bedding that she’d embroidered to celebrate my entrée into the world of real love.
I didn’t understand why nothing was happening the way social norms indicated things should, but that night I didn’t even feel sad. I was exhausted from smiling and dancing all day, tired of being beautiful and lively in a heavy dress better suited for royalty than for a wedding, and I thought only that you wanted to protect me, as always, or that you were prolonging the perverse pleasure of waiting a little bit longer. Again and again I twisted the wedding ring on my finger, filled its warm gold with kisses, and fell asleep, no longer afraid of that final moment of surrender that had so unsettled my dreams.
I never told anyone this story. It didn’t seem to be of any interest—people are bored by happy tales, and with good reason: happiness calls up those parts of us that are most melancholy and lonely. I’ve started writing it now most of all for Camila—I am afraid that one day she’ll discover all the facts and be angry with us. There’s no such thing as facts, my dear Camila: they are game pieces we create and move around to make ourselves feel victorious, or at least secure. Everyone has his secret, every love its nontransferable code. You were born of our love, and I owe you an effort to decipher the code that is your inheritance, the light given to you, that you might transform it into your own particular vision.
Above all, do not seek in love a path that is not there. At the end of the war, finding themselves surrounded by ruins, people believed they could save the world through construction. Builders grew wealthy and began to be called contractors and were universally admired. Utility became the predominant value; philosophers studied natural sciences; social anxieties were laid out on tables as had previously happened only with pie crust, live animals, and human cadavers; and private practices were set up to solve people. And love, which has no solution, disappeared.
Time took its place, but time turns in the opposite direction from light, moving from white to black. That’s why it has to turn faster and faster, and so life passes by without our noticing. Love, Camila, is the only fetter there is on death—that’s what I was tempted to tell you when that bolt of lightning took Eduardo from you. The cruelty of love is precisely that: it fixes life motionless in eternity. But the lightning was exempt because it was so literal. Had it not happened during the day, nobody would have believed that a young man could disappear like that, emerging from the sea, twenty years old, riven by a bolt of lightning plunging from the sky.
Light has its strategies and its chosen few. You were marked by it from birth: without that tongue of fire turning your first beloved to ashes, you might never have found that out. Don’t think I’m here to cover over the plot of your existence with gold leaf. No, my only aim is to describe the potential truth of these seventy-five years of mine.
As you know, I never had to look for work or develop a skill. It’s agonizing for me sometimes to see you torn apart by money, Camila; you get furious with me, say it’s people’s subservience that you find so appalling, the ease with which they stoop to power and abandon everything they believe in, but it is money that makes people stoop like that, shiny money that garbs them in the color of time, a long mantle made of rectangular scraps of paper that they mistake for glory and eternal happiness. You swiftly respond that that’s the way it’s always been, which is probably true, but I’m part of the last generation of women who were spared the indignity of having to earn a living. I saw the Marquise of Faya placing her last chips on the green felt of the gaming table, saw her die at the croupiers’ feet and be shoved down the table by the eager feet of other losers, but I never saw two female friends competing for an employer’s favor.
Now that the wars are over, the main thing people seem able to survive is themselves, and that’s the scariest thing of all.”
This landmark work is an epic saga of a rapidly changing political climate and a searing personal account of three strong female characters.
Pedrosa is the author of twenty-four books, including In Your Hands, as well as Eternity and Desire, which was a finalist for the 2009 Portugal Telecom Award and the 2010 Premio Correntes d’Escritas; and The Intimates, winner of the 2012 Premio Maxima de Literatura. Her work has been published in Brazil, Span, Italy, Croatia, and Germany.
Ines Pedrosa on why she wrote In Your Hands:
In Your Hands was inspired by the true story of an exceptional couple I’d learned about. The husband had a lover who lived with them and was presented to others as a friend. This was, of course, necessary in the Portugal of the 1930s and throughout their lives together. I was curious about the mind of such a woman and what might have led her to agree to this unusual arrangement. My novel begins by lyrically exploring a long but enigmatic “virginal” marriage between its protagonist Jenny and her homosexual husband. Woven into the story’s fabric are two other unusual protagonists who become, through mysterious circumstances, something like Jenny’s daughter and granddaughter.
The first, Camila, born as the result of a passing heterosexual relationship between her husband’s lover and a Jewish Frenchwoman who escaped from the Nazis, eventually becomes a successful photojournalist. Her story is composed of her reflections on some of the photographs in a retrospective exhibition of her life’s work to date.
The second is Natalia, the bi-racial daughter of the photojournalist from a love affair with an African resistance fighter during Camila’s coverage of the Angolan War of the 1960s and ’70s, between Portugal and its colonies. Natalia sets out for Angola on a quest to find her father and, in the process, discover herself, a story that unfolds through her letters to her “grandmother” Jenny.
With In Your Hands, I wanted to bring to life the social relationship caused by women’s entrance into the public arena during the late 20th century and illustrate the changing dynamic between men and women and its impact on the intimate lives of the novel’s protagonists. In this difficult undertaking, however, nothing turns out to be quite what it seems at first glance. Throughout this meditation in the form of a triptych we witness, through three generations of women, the contemporary history of a small country that struggles to overcome its complex of a lost greatness – derived from Portugal’s bold 15th and 16th-century navigations of discovery and its ensuing world empire stemming from those discoveries.
Along the way, the reader is also made privy to twin seminal events: one in 1940, during the fascist Salazar dictatorship and another in 1998, to celebrate globalization and democracy. In both cases, the desire to “make Portugal great again” has concealed an uneasy conscience of perpetual disillusionment and a subservience to appearances which frustrates any possibility of finding one’s own authentic voice – which was, and still is, a central issue for women. With In Your Hands, I was attempting to shine a bold light on the miasma of my country’s elusive past, while offering some atypical insights into the universal issues of family, identity, race, and gender that continue to haunt us to this day.