TITLE: INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE
AUTHOR: MAGGIE O’FARRELL
PUBLISHER: TINDER PRESS
BLURB FROM THE COVER
It’s July 1976. In London, it hasn’t rained for months, gardens are filled with aphids, water comes from a standpipe, and Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back.
The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children – two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce – back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.
The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome. It lies along the corridors, it circles around the curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.
I have only read only other novel by O’Farrell, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and loved it. I’ve wanted to read more of her work so I’ve kept my eye out for her. I thought Instructions for a Heatwave was great. O’Farrell took me in unexpected directions.
STRUCTURE: Instructions for a Heatwave is split into four fairly long sections. Each sections is named a day of the week, Thursday through to Sunday. There are individual chapters within each section. The chapters are fairly long. O’Farrell uses a non-linear narrative. The viewpoint in each chapter alternates between Gretta and her three children; Monica, Michael Francis and Aoife. As well as dealing with present events, O’Farrell manages to filter in a lot of time shifts exploring the back story of each character. These time shifts are not intrusive and blend effortlessly into the narrative. I liked the structure. I was impressed by how easily O’Farrell moves back and forth in time.
PLACE: Instructions for a Heatwave takes place in London, New York and Ireland. Most of the novel is set in London. O’Farrell takes us on a side trip to New York to meet Aoife and the whole family head to Ireland in the last sections because Gretta’s husband has been spotted there. London was the most realistic setting. O’Farrell really brings the city to life. I loved the way she portrayed the city in the grip of the heatwave. I thought her descriptions of the drought that plagued the city and the oppressive, suffocating heat were very realistic. I thought she did a great job of showing how the heat affected the behaviour and temperament of Gretta and her children. I don’t think she did as good a job of bringing New York and Ireland to life. Neither place felt as real as London.
CHARACTERISATION: O’Farrell creates great characters in Instructions for a Heatwave. Gretta and her family make Instructions for a Heatwave stand out from other novels. Gretta and her family bring a new meaning to the word dysfunction. Gretta and her husband are hiding a secret that could tear the family apart. As far as secrets go it’s not that bad and people have hidden worse things. In the context of the era when Instructions for a Heatwave is set it’s a huge deal. Michael Francis got a girl pregnant when he was at University and had to marry her. He gave up his PHD to get a job as a teacher. Years later, his marriage is on shaky ground. His wife seems to be pulling away from him. He has never quite forgiven her for his failure to get his PHD and he feels she forced him to take a job he has grown to hate. Monica is married to a much older man. She was married before. She made it clear she didn’t want to have children but fell pregnant anyway. She throws herself down the stairs in order to miscarry and makes it look like she fell. Aoife knew. Her husband found out and left her. She thought her younger sister told him and hasn’t spoken to her for several years. Her new husband has two teenage children who hate her. My favourite character was Aoife. O’Farrell makes it clear that she has undiagnosed dyslexia and she is a functioning illiterate. She has managed to keep her secret for years. She works as an assistant for a famous photographer who has no idea she can’t read or write. However, her secret may be about to be revealed as everything she doesn’t know how to deal with at the office has been shoved into a blue folder. She asks her boyfriend to deal with it and he finds uncashed cheques more than a year old worth thousands of pounds. She also discovers she’s pregnant. I thought Aoife was a great character. I was shocked that Gretta and Robert made no attempt to deal with her problems. The characters were my best friends. I really enjoyed the time I spent with them.
PLOT: O’Farrell offers something unique with Instructions for a Heatwave. The premise of this novel is simple enough; a man goes out for a paper one night and doesn’t come back. Instructions for a Heatwave is not the first novel to tackle this. The way O’Farrell deals with the subject matter makes this novel very special. The main story doesn’t really revolve around Robert’s disappearance. O’Farrell uses this as a lynchpin to explore dysfunctional family dynamics. O’Farrell makes it clear from the start that Gretta knows more than she’s letting on. I thought it was more sinister than it turned out to me and actually thought at one point she had killed him. I found Gretta’s big revelation unexpected and surprising. It took me by surprise. Greta and Robert’s dark secret would not have had the same impact if she had set Instructions for a Heatwave in more recent times. I liked the way the story arcs of the other characters were resolved without being over the top and happy.
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