Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. An Event and a Review

Confession Number 1: I am a little bit in love in Maggie O’Farrell.

Last night I rocked up at my old stomping ground of Waterstones Piccadilly to hear Maggie O’Farrell talk about her new novel, Instructions for a Heatwave. The event was unsurprisingly sold out; there’s been so much positive pre-publication buzz.
Instructions for a Heatwave
Instructions for a Heatwave is set in the scorching summer of 1976. The action takes place over 4 days, but the story spans the lifetime of the Riordan family. Robert Riordan, now in seemingly contented retirement, pops to the shop one Thursday in July and fails to return home. This entirely out-of-character behaviour forces together a family that has long been separate. Three grown-up children return to their childhood home to help figure out where he has gone and why. They have uneasy, fractured relationships with each other, and with their mother Gretta. Finding Robert might be easier than spending time together.

The event began with a reading from the book. The section Maggie chose (I hope she’ll forgive me using her first name) is from near the beginning of the story. It is a witty and enlightening section about Michael Francis, the son. As we learn about his first meeting with his wife’s parents much is revealed about his own family. More than anything, he finds it hard to believe how nice they are to each other. Dinner is had with no shouting, no melodrama, no histrionics. As Maggie read, the comedic aspects were so apparent – not ‘laugh out loud’ funny, but ‘wry smile’ funny.

After the reading there was a brilliant question and answer/discussion session between Maggie and the journalist Elizabeth Day. I thought it worked so well, pulling out themes that appear in this book as well as in the previous novels. Elizabeth (I know, first names again) started by asking about the notion of Irishness, and how this fitted in with Maggie’s work. Instructions for a Heatwave is the first novel she has written that has an Irish family at its heart, despite Maggie being born in Coleraine.

Maggie’s very modest answer was that she hadn’t necessarily thought she had had much to add before to the amazing canon of writers Ireland has produced. But, that this time it had felt right. It is also an Irish family in England, so the children grew up outside of Ireland, as Maggie herself did so there was an affinity there. Elizabeth also asked her about the setting of the book, the heatwave itself. It turns out this is something that has long fascinated Maggie, both the idea that extreme weather can drive people to act in an extreme manner and that it happened in the mid-70s during a time of unrest, change and depravation. It is also an event that everyone who lived through it remembers. Now, I would just like to add, on a personal note, that yes this is very true. When I came home from the event last night and was talking to my partner about the book he immediately launched into a monologue about that summer – despite his tender years at the time!

Although to him it was simply a very long very hot summer, we were reminded that it was a very real crisis. The government enacted drought legislation, little bits of which are included in the book. I loved these snippets, punctuating the narrative. They act as a warning and as historical markers. The novel touches upon more than just the drought, historically speaking. The way in which radical feminism was starting to filter through to kitchens (a wonderful turn of phrase that I wish were mine, but actually was Maggie’s) in the mid-70s is also woven in. Maggie, of course, thinks that feminism is a rational response to the world around us. When she spoke about her ire at finding gender-specific walking reins for kids I got such a happy feeling inside! I got happier still when she was discussing the whole ‘domestic drama’ stigma women writers get labelled with. She very clearly outlined how ridiculous it is – so much of everything is about family dynamics. What’s Hamlet about if it isn’t family?

One aspect of the book has a very personal meaning for Maggie. Her character Aoife cannot read. She develops the most ingenious coping strategies to keep this secret from everyone. We understand that Aoife has dyslexia, but she is dealing with it during a time when little help was readily available. Maggie was inspired by her son’s recent diagnosis, and drew on his experience, with his permission. I found it a very emotionally touching part of the story. Knowing how fundamental reading is to my everyday existence makes it hard to imagine not having that sanctuary available to you – never mind the practical difficulties.

During the audience questions we got an insight into how Maggie crafts her wonderful novels. She hates writing beginnings, they are the hardest to get right, so she often starts somewhere in the middle and sees what happens. She’s not much of a planner, and the ending sometimes changes along the way. A first draft is like clay; it’s something to worked upon. Luckily for us, her methods are very successful, and we get to reap the benefits of her hard work and creativity. Hooray!

Confession Number 2: It has taken me a very long time to write my review of Instructions for a Heatwave

I absolutely loved The Hand That First Held Mine when I read it a couple of years ago. The weaving of stories, the secrets and slow revelations were all so beautifully done. It is a compelling read. So, I absolutely jumped at the chance of a review copy of the new novel from the lovely folk at Tinder Press. I didn’t read it straight away, but once I saw all the amazing comments from people that had, I knew it was time to dive in. I read it, and enjoyed it, but didn’t immediately connect with it in the same way as I had with her previous work. I admit to being very perplexed; I felt like I’d missed something. Other book bloggers who I trust and admire were raving about it, so I decided to mull it over for a while and come back to it nearer publication. I waited for a friend of mine to read her copy, then had a chat about it – and that’s when it all started to fall into place for me.

There is so much more going on in Instructions for a Heatwave than I’d allowed for. I’d got into my story-mode of reading, when I’m all about the ‘what’s happening’ without allowing for any reflection about the characters or even really thinking about the social context. I feel I owe the book a big apology, because it is actually marvellous.

First of all, the writing itself is brilliant. The way language is used to create the oppressive atmosphere of the summer is perfect: Gretta moves through the house with the solid air weighing upon her back. Hot and cold are used to describe people and their moods; one person can be coolly indifferent, another suffers slow-burning panic. Their conversations with each other are full of false starts and half truths, skirting the issue and flares of temper. Like families do. They bicker and backbite, reliving old grievances and replaying their allotted roles. But, and here’s the crucial thing, these relationships can be altered. Old wounds can be healed, friendships can be renewed.

The secrets that come to light, gradually, throughout the book are not so very shocking now, but in their own context do have an impact. Everyone in the family is harbouring guilt over things they would rather not reveal. Robert’s disappearance is the catalyst for all the careful concealment to be undone. It seems to me that the whole family are suffocating with the amount of things unsaid between them – this atmosphere is brilliantly created and as a reader I felt it too. I wanted to know all of the things, and if the Riordans refused to be honest with each other, I was prepared to give them all a stern talking to.

If I can have one complaint, it’s that I wanted to know more about the characters. Gretta’s life as a young wife and mother in a new country; Robert’s thoughts on retirement; Michael Francis’ marriage; Aoife’s decision to leave. And Monica. Most of all I wanted to know more about Monica. How did she end up in such a rubbish marriage, with a ready-made family she never wanted. Of all of them I felt she could do with a friend the most. I’ve been left with a curiosity about her, and I’ve realised that she has made quite an impact upon me.

As I hope is apparent, I have moved from ‘enjoyed’ to ‘in awe’ – I love it when a novel can sneak up on you and make you love it more the more you think about it. Instructions for a Heatwave is is a wonderful read.

Confession Number 3: This is a very long post.

So, I’ll stop writing now.

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