Sunday, 8 November 2015

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

This is the second book that I have read in the last month where the events occur during a heatwave; both times I have been really impressed with the way the heatwave becomes an integral part of the story. In this current book – Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell – after months of no rain and oppressive heat, Robert Riordan tells his wife that he is going to the corner store one morning and then never returns. His departure is the basis for a reluctant reunion of his wife Gretta and their 3 children; Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife.  O’Farrell weaves the heaviness of the heat in and around the stories of the Riordan families’ lives; the heat affects them, it affects their ability to think, to make decisions, it makes them tired and lethargic. It’s brilliant really, the way that the heatwave is such a crucial element to the story. You know that if things had been different, if the temperature had been more normal, it’s entirely possible that this story would play out in a completely different way.

Instructions for a Heatwave is really the story of a family and its secrets. It’s the story of how you can be closer to someone that anyone else and still not really know anything about them; you can never know the inner depths to a person if they don’t want you to. Everyone in the Riordan family has their secrets and the keeping of those secrets is what has driven them all to this moment, to Robert walking out and a tension between the siblings so thick, you could cut it with a knife.

 Michael Francis’ marriage is failing; his wife has pretty much clocked out of the marriage as well as being a mother to their two young children. Michael Francis and Claire got pregnant and married too young (in that order). Neither of them are happy, but while Michael Francis is trying his best, Claire has gone back to school, has found new friends and is slowly changing her appearance ‘The Industrial Revolution and its effects on the middle classes,” she says, turning to face him, putting an arm over her page, and he experiences a dissolving feeling in his abdomen. Part lust, part horror at her short hair. He still hasn’t got used to it, still can’t forgive her for it. He’d come home a few weeks ago and opened the front door, as yet innocent of what had occurred behind it that day, as yet full of trust that his wife was still the person she’d always been.”  I could quote this entire page to be honest, it’s a beautiful ode to Michael Francis’ love for Claire personified in his love of her hair; that she has viciously shorn with no regard for her husband. There is a heart wrenching scene a few pages later where Michael Francis is attempting to make dinner while one of his children is constantly asking questions, Claire is leaving and seems reluctant to give Michael Francis any information about where she is going, and the other child is starting to panic about Claire leaving. The scene is complete chaos; I felt stress just reading it.

Monica, the middle child, refuses to acknowledge out loud that her life is not perfect. She feels that she has failed at everything that she has ever tried, and never seems to realize that maybe she needs to change herself before things will get better. O’Farrell really hit the mark with Monica and I really identify with her, although I wish I didn’t! She lets her fear of failure, of being less than perfect affect everything in her life and ends up settling for things that don’t make her happy. She is married to a man that she has nothing in common with, a man who has two daughters; daughters that Monica would love to be a mother to, but they won’t let her in and she does all the wrong things to connect with them. Monica’s biggest problem is herself, her self-persecution and her martyr complex. ‘Homesick: she’s found that it really does make you feel sick, ill, maddened by longing. But by evening, she is always ready, her grief behind her, hidden, like a deformity she must cover up. Hair up. Makeup on. Supper on the range. She will make this work; she will not go back; she will not let on to anyone; she will not show them that she’s been beaten again. Monica with her failed nursing degree, her childlessness, her husband who left her: she won’t be that person. She will live here in this house with its shaky roof, its skirting-boards that scuttle at night, its moth-eaten furniture, its hostile neighbors. She will live here and she will say nothing.”

Aoife, the youngest, is the child who invites the most sympathy, by far. She is dyslexic in a time when the disease was not understood and definitely not often diagnosed. Aoife was a difficult baby which was the start of her problems. When she started school things just got worse. Her parents and teachers blamed her for not being able to read. No matter what they tried she never got better, but Aoife wasn’t a meek child and when her elders pushed, she pushed back. As soon as she was old enough she left home and pretty much lived as a squatter until leaving for America. Although freer in New York, Aoife still keeps the secret of her illiteracy. Aoife herself does not understand her problem and so is embarrassed by it. She tells no one, not even those closest to her; and lives by memorizing everything that she can or using the age old technique of asking for help after pretending to have lost her glasses. ‘She feels herself to be cursed, like those people in folktales who are singled out for the random cruelty of some higher being, condemned forever to have a wing instead of an arm or to live underground or to take the form of a reptile. She cannot read. She cannot do the thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemize them into meaning. She can create letters, she can form them with the nib of a pen or the lead of a pencil, but she cannot get them to line up in the right order, in a sequence that anyone else could understand. She can hold words in her head- she hoards them there – she can spin sentences, paragraphs, whole books in her mind; she can stack up words inside herself but she cannot get these words down her arm through her fingers and out onto a page. She doesn’t know why this is. She suspects that, as a baby, she crossed paths with a sorcerer who was in a bad mood that day and, on seeing her, on passing her pram, decided to suck this magical ability from her, to leave her cast out, washed up on the shores of illiteracy and ignorance, cursed forever.’ I realize that this is a long quote, but I found it very poignant and a perfect description of the isolation that Aoife must feel. She lives her life constantly on the edge of her seat; afraid of being found out, ready to end one life and try to find another. In reading other reviews of this book I have seen criticisms of O’Farrell not getting Aoife to tell anyone of her problem, but I don’t agree with them. Anyone who had lived the childhood that Aoife did, with no one trying to understand the problem, instead just telling her to try harder and Aoife believing herself to be cursed – of course she feels like she can’t tell anyone. Who would support or believe her? No one has before. I feel for Aoife, desperately. Reading is my solace, it’s my happy place, my calm place; and not having that in my life is possibly one of the most terrifying things that I can imagine.


Robert’s disappearance is not the point of this story; it’s really just the catalyst for the siblings being reunited and a chance to come back together after years of separation. Families are complicated but when it comes down to it, blood is thicker than water. You may keep secrets from them, but they rarely remain hidden forever. And in the end no is closer to you than your family and no one else can understand where you come from. I am not sure where Robert has gone, or why. There seems to be a secret that Gretta may be keeping, she does not seem to be freaking out about his disappearance, but is more concerned about her children. Monic and Aoife have been divided by another secret for years but maybe this is their chance to put the past behind them. Either way, I am looking forward to finishing this book. The characters are all completely defined and unique; I am invested in all of their lives and really hope at least one of them gets out happy.

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