Instructions for a Heatwave: Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2013 Paperback – 29 Aug 2013
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The Riordans will stay in your mind long after you finish this book. They're funny, infuriating and impossible not to love. They feel like family (Irish Times)
My favourite kind of novel: big-hearted, psychologically complex and utterly gripping (Maria Semple, author of Where'd You Go, Bernadette)
Unputdownable (Joanna Briscoe, Guardian)
Instantly appealing...magical (Daily Telegraph)
Masterful...holds you on an exquisite knife-edge (Marie Claire)
An author at the top of her game (Sunday Express)
O'Farrell's language is lissom, airborne, mostly seamless, her characters flawed, contradictory, aggravating and instantly knowable. This is a deceptively easy, effortlessly true-feeling novel; a total delight (Metro)
A quite wonderful novel...at once enthralling, page turning and atmospheric (Irish Examiner)
An unforgettable portrait of an Irish family in crisis in the legendary heatwave of 1976See all Product description
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The first chapter is superb: we see the mother alone in the house; we see that she is greedy, constantly eating, spooning jam out of the pot because she ‘suffers from weakness’ if she doesn’t eat. This last is an example of her easy self -indulgence, her self-delusion, her hypochondria. And as she sits there eating & reflecting in a self-centred way, we see her false piety, her hypocrisy, her total lack of any intellectual capacity or empathy. She lives according to a set of pious homilies & prejudices, & uses manipulative behaviour to control her children, & perhaps her husband. It is hard to find any redeeming feature.
Clearly, Maggie O’Farrell can write fluently: the words pour off her pen; I might even say gush. What I feel about this book is that here is a very practised writer, who can reel off this fluid prose & concoct a seemingly plausible & credible narrative about family life, & in particular Irish family life. But somehow it’s too practised, & ultimately formulaic, so unsatisfying.
It is difficult to justify my criticism of the book, because if I think about the individual parts, for example the stories of the (grown up) children & their relationships with each other, their mother & in the wider world, I can see it is all skilfully done. And she has some beautiful turns of phrase. But as a whole it is all too pat.
Added to this is the fact that although we witness their individual anxieties etc, the overarching tone is one of sentimentality, increasingly evident as the story progresses. Certain key events test credulity, for example the father going off - disappearing - for what turns out to be a rather unconvincing reason, although I can see how the author has tried to make it credible. Yes, these are Irish people in the thrall of church/ social pressures, but for me that doesn’t gel as reason enough. But why exactly did he go without a word to anyone; it is all a bit vague.
As others have pointed out, the heatwave theme doesn’t really work. At times I think she evokes the heat well, but it doesn’t suffuse the book sufficiently to justify it as a main theme. The water shortage announcements that precede sections of the book are artificial & add nothing, clearly only there to justify the title of the book - “Instructions”. But worse is the metaphor about a Bunsen burner causing a reaction, acting as a catalyst to cause a change in the nature of things. I know others liked this but to me it was a clumsy attempt to explain these rather unbelievable events; particularly the father’s desertion, when surely it ought to be enough to say people were adversely affected by the heat. But that wouldn’t quite justify him doing something so apparently out of character, so we are treated to this obfuscation about Bunsen burners.
The narrative follows the changes in the main characters’ attitudes & relationships with each other - with the exception of the mother perhaps, although we do see a more caring side in the last chapter. But it is all too saccharine.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Overall, this is superior pulp fiction, of the saga variety.
One morning in the middle of the famous 1976 heatwave Robert, a retired bank manager, goes missing. His wife Gretta eventually manages to communicate the fact to their son and two daughters, who rally round to support their mother and attempt to locate their father.
On several technical fronts this book did not quite work for me. The central prop of the book is the disappearance, suddenly, without explanation, of Robert. Robert himself is a shadowy figure in the book, far too insubstantial to do the job the author requires. His absence should be a howling vortex, a black hole of potent emptiness which pulls the rest of the characters inexorably into it. But in fact the other characters – even Gretta, for whom her husband’s disappearance is reduced to an annoyance at not being able to find the shed key – don’t seem very anxious about him, there is no panic, only mild curiosity and a sense of overwhelming inconvenience. In itself, his disappearance seems unlikely. What at first seems like a spur-of-the-moment decision turns out to be planned; why didn’t he tell Gretta at least that he was going away for a few days, even if he didn’t explain the reason? Robert’s disappearance is a narrative ploy, a catalyst for bringing the rest of the family together. While they overcome their differences in order to work together to find him, this only proves that he isn’t very important as a unifying, cohesive force in the family at all.
Each of Gretta’s children are dealing with issues, secrets of various kinds which, boiled down, all stem from the domineering, hard-line Catholicism and inflexible nature of their mother. They hide things, they feel bad about things, because she would be angry, disapprove or fail to offer support. Unfortunately the Gretta which is presented to us in this book is neither domineering, hard-line nor inflexible. She comes across as eccentric, well-meaning but perhaps rather loud and embarrassing, definitely damaged, perhaps even suffering from mental health issues. I felt sorry for her although at times she did make me laugh.
The book is set against a heatwave and in places this is beautifully described, but it doesn’t really impact the story other than the characters feel hot. The plot calls from them to travel to Ireland and I must say that the refreshment of the ocean crossing did impact the plot and the atmosphere. The eponymous Instructions for a Heatwave which preface each chapter play no role at all in the story, and seemed like a device.
All in all I would say that strong writing and vivid characters proved too weighty for the flimsy structure of this book, they deserved better. If I had been Ms O’Farrell’s editor I would have suggested a substantial beefing up of Robert’s character, making him the mainstay and stronghold of the family, and a significant hardening of Gretta’s, making her into the doughty, waspish and domineering woman her children all imagine her to be. Finally I would have ditched the title and thought of something better.
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