The 20-Minute Catch-Up Blog: Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave o'farrellThis is the first of a series of 20-minute blogs.

Who has time to blog in the springtime?

Usually I do, but I’m revamping my blog and my online life.  Less time online, more life!

It is beautiful outside, I am here and there on my bike, and I don’t do much writing except in the notebook I keep in my bike pannier.  The last long entry was a list of bookstores in London and their addresses.

I’m sentimental about keeping the list!

But I have been reading.  I started Maggie O’Farrell’s superb novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, on a plane last month, then forgot about it (it’s on my Nook, which makes it easy to forget), and finally finished it. I chose it on the basis of the title, and for once I chose well.   This graceful writer won a Betty Trask Award for her first novel, After You’d Gone, a Somerset Maugham Award for The Distance Between Us, and the Costa Novel Award for The Hand That First Held Mine.

Set during the heat wave of July 1976, Instructions for a Heatwave describes three siblings dripping with sweat and anxiety in the heat wave after their elderly father disappears.

O’Farrell’s lyrical writing is characterized by detailed descriptions of domestic life, vivid similes, repetition, and a wealth of adjectives and present participles.  Writers don’t seem to use participles anymore so it took a while to get used to O’Farrell’s style: in the first two paragraphs alone, we have the participles “propelling,” “filling,” “pushing,” “yanking,” “grimacing,” “scorching,” “steaming,” and “reminding.”

O’Farrell draws you into the story with her beautiful prose, and the participles add a rhythim.

The heat, the heat.  It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs.  It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome:  it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.  The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.

In the opening chapter, Gretta is making soda bread, which she has done three times a week since her marriage. When her retired husband, Robert, goes out for a walk, she barely notices.  When he doesn’t come home, she doesn’t know what to do.  Soon her children are drawn into the scene. Although they are steady with their mother, all have their own worries.

Michael is an unhappy husband and father of two children:  he  dropped out of a Ph.D. program when he got Claire pregnant, and works as a teacher  with no hope of finishing his Ph.D.   Claire is becoming more and more remote as she rediscovers herself through Open University courses.

Then there is the good, best-loved daughter, Monica, whose life revolves around the two bratty children of her husband from another marriage. Her first husband left her after she had a miscarriage which is more complicated than I will reveal here.

The most interesting character by far is the youngest sister, Aoife, who has an unidentified learning disability (dyslexia?).  She works as a photographer’s assistant in New York and has desperately disguised the fact that she can’t read.  She has stuck bills, contracts, and check into a folder, hoping someone will help her.

I admired this novel very much, and though the poeticism is not always to my taste, O’Farrell is a bold, very accomplished writer.