Fiction – Kindle edition; Tinder Press; 338 pages; 2013.
In 2013 Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave was THE book of the moment. It was all over Twitter, was a favourite with bloggers and became a Sunday Times bestseller. Four years on, I thought I’d give it a try.
Unfortunately, I didn’t really get on with it.
The story is a relatively simple one. It’s set in 1976, during the height of the infamous British heatwave of that year, and examines the outfall on one family when the patriarch, the last man rescued at Dunkirk during the Second World War, walks out of the family home never to be seen again.
Here’s what I liked about the story:
1. It has a rich cast of characters — an Irish mammy, a trio of adult siblings and their various partners and children — all of whom are richly drawn and believable. Each character grapples with their own personal dilemmas: Aoife hides the fact she can’t read from everyone she knows, including her family; Monica is struggling to make friends with the step-children she never wanted and is still coming to terms with her own miscarriage many years earlier; Michael Francis is in love with someone else he cannot have but does not want his wife to leave him; and Gretta is devoutly Catholic but has committed a mortal sin that no one except her husband knows about.
2. The dialogue is spot on and O’Farrell is very good at capturing more than two people speaking at any one time (a tricky skill to pull off if you’ve ever tried to write fiction).
3. The depiction of sibling relationships is especially good, particularly the ways in which misunderstandings and perceived betrayals can lead to years of silence, heartache and estrangement.
Here’s what I didn’t like about the story:
1. The heatwave element was poorly done. Perhaps I’ve just read too much Australian fiction in which sizzling summer temperatures and drought becomes a character in its own right. But in Instructions for a Heatwave it felt tacked on and didn’t feel central to the story; from the mid-way point it could well have been set during a big freeze in the middle of winter and we’d be none the wiser.
2. It was too reliant on flashbacks. Each character seems to spend an inordinate amount of time remembering things from the past. I know this is a good way to flesh out a character, to tell their back story, but it slowed the pace down. A choppy, more fractured structure might have given the narrative more of a “push” but I realise that may not have been the author’s intention, which, I assume, was to spend a lot of time with each character so that the reader would come to know them well. But this structure didn’t really work for me; I quickly grew bored. (As an aside, I wanted to know more about the missing father, but we only ever hear about him through second-hand accounts.)
3. The ending tied up all the loose ends too nicely. Everyone seemed to suddenly mend their years’ long disputes and grievances in the space of a couple of days. It didn’t feel very believable, but maybe I’m just not used to happy endings…
As a domestic drama, Instructions for a Heatwave is fairly conventional; it doesn’t do anything particularly original and if you’ve read dozens and dozens of novels by Irish writers (who excel at this kind of story) it feels fairly run-of-the-mill. But it’s readable and peopled with interesting, well drawn characters, and if you like your books to have neatly drawn endings, then it won’t disappoint.
This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in September 2013 and kept it hidden away on my Kindle all this time. I’m tempted to say something along the lines of “perhaps it should have stayed there”, but I won’t <insert winky face here>.