Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell – Tinder Press – ISBN: 978-0-7553-5879-3
Since I began to write myself, every now and then I have come across a writer who embodies all that I aspire to. Maggie O’Farrell is definitely one such individual. Her ability to tell a story, to give a sense of a specific time and place, but most of all, her character-writing is enviable. You not only know her people, you love them. I first fell in love with her work when I read The Hand That First Held Mine, a novel I cannot recommend highly enough – as long as you don’t mind the sort of book that you throw across the room because it breaks your heart…
This novel I picked up second-hand (regulars might notice a theme here), and I decided to read it now, for reasons obvious to those of you in Europe. The setting is a previous heatwave, that of 1976. In fact, O’Farrell says she was inspired to write it by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano some years ago and the resulting disruption it caused; the way it made people recognise that nature can throw a spanner into the works of even the most technologically sophisticated civilisation got her remembering a time from her early childhood. I was sitting my A-levels, but, yeah, never mind, let’s gloss over that.
The story centres on a tempestuous Irish family living in North London. The father, just retired, goes out to get a paper as usual one morning and never comes back. His disappearance is the catalyst for a series of revelations which will change the family forever. Quiet Robert and drama queen Gretta, the parents, are Irish immigrants who met in England. Their three children – Michael Francis, a teacher whose plans for a high-flying academic career were thwarted; Monica, twice-married, unhappy in the Cotswolds, and wonderful, bohemian Aoife, working two jobs in New York – were all born in London. They are brought back together by the mystery of Robert’s vanishing, and old disputes and current crises all boil over in the hot summer of ‘76. O’Farrell manages to conjure up that time very well for someone who was only four. I recall it vividly, and she has captured the dry, still, strangeness of it perfectly.
I can’t really say much more than that for fear of spoilers, but I can tell you that I found all of the people in the book compelling – apart, possibly, from Monica’s step-daughters, whom I could cheerfully throttle, the little brats (I especially loved Aoife, a chaotic, wild, artistic punk, with severe undiagnosed learning difficulties. How I begged for a happy ending for her!). O’Farrell has a talent for making you dislike someone and then, just as they seem unredeemable, redeeming them. It’s infuriating and joyous, and I love her for it.
And of course, once you begin to learn the secrets that none of the children knew, then you can’t put the damn book down, because you have to know what happens next, and how it all turns out and will everything be ok for… but I’ve said too much already. Read this, I implore you!