Instructions For A Heatwave

  • Books
  • Sunday, 21 Jul 2013

Author : Maggie O’Farrell

Genre : Contemporary fiction

Publisher : Tinder Press

ANY number of superlatives could be used to describe Instructions For A Heatwave, though none would adequately define this book.

Buy it, read it, cherish it, share it with your friends, share it with your book-loving colleagues, share it with random strangers passing on the street, because this will be one of the best books you will read this year.

In times to come you might spy this title on someone else’s bookshelf and, through the shared emotional experience of having lived through this book, you will immediately feel a bond with the fellow reader, because reading Instructions For A Heatwave is a viscerally resonant experience that transcends the simple act of reading; the characters and storyline insinuate themselves into the reader’s mind and become part of the collective memory in the way of all great works of art.

There are books, that when you finish reading, you hold a little longer in your hands, unwilling to let go. You read the cover synopsis and the reviews, biography and acknowledgments just for the chance to prolong the pleasure, and when finally you put it down it is a heart-wrenching experience, something akin to saying goodbye to a dear old friend.

Maggie O’Farrell was born in Ireland but left for Britain at the age of two and knows the limbo of second generation immigrants (an oxymoron if ever there was one, but language is imprecise), having feet in two cultures but not truly belonging to either. Instructions For A Heatwave is the story of a family that in way reflects her own experiences – the parents in the book, like her own parents were Irish and half-Irish, the children, like her own children are two girls and a boy.

At times I was reminded of Marina Lewycka’s A Short History Of Tractors In Ukranian or Zadie Smith’sWhite Teeth – both also based in London, both also dealing with the theme of children whose parents call another country home. While I loved those books, I must confess that I enjoyed Instructions For A Heatwave even more.

The mother, Gretta Riordan is a wonderfully neurotic and eccentric character who carries on a permanent monologue with anyone and anything (including her shoes) and is very much the dominant force in this somewhat dysfunctional family. Just how much of her erratic behaviour is influenced by the fistfuls of pills she regularly swallows is never really clear.

Gretta’s three children are caught in the dilemma of being too Irish and not Irish enough, pulled by the twin forces of their mother’s attempts to force Irishness upon them while at the same time living at a chaotic time in Anglo-Irish relations when merely having an Irish accent in Britain could be an invitation for trouble.

The heatwave in question is the long hot summer of 1976 when water rationing was introduced in Britain under the Drought Act. I’m a little sceptical of the author’s assertion in interviews that she remembers how the strange weather affected people and brought out subsequent strange behaviour – she was only four years old at the time. I was twice her age and yet my own memories of that summer and the summer precedent are vague and distant – distorted by the heat haze of childhood shimmering over the melted sticky tar of sun-baked roads. Be that as it may, this little quibble has no impact on the book.

The story takes place primarily in London, with brief episodes in New York and the west of Ireland, but the setting is secondary to the dynamics of the family and the different ties each member has with one another. The dialogue, both internal and external, is fantastically vibrant and realistic. The highly engaging characters are like real-life, three-dimensional people that evoke empathy in the reader. The subplots that reveal their inner worlds are mini stories in themselves, exploring themes like dyslexia and illiterateness, photography and further education and the nature of fidelity and family. The narrative slips effortlessly from present to past and back again, sometimes within the space of the same paragraph, and when the past becomes present and old secrets are revealed, the characters must learn to accept and adapt to new realities.

It is a highly engaging book that keeps the reader turning the pages and is almost impossible to put down. If you only read one book this year, then you won’t go too far wrong by choosing Instructions For A Heatwave.

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Instructions For A Heatwave


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