Geographically, the novel takes us from North London to New York and Gloucestershire to its climax on a small island in Connemara. While the streets, houses and workplaces are beautifully sketched, it’s the heat and attitudes of the English 1976 summer of drought that defines the setting right from the opening paragraph:
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 was 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. (p3)
Despite Elmore Leonard’s diktat to never open a book with the weather, this setting works by exposing the characters to a situation beyond the everyday: the melting tar, the bands of sweat along the hairline, the unnaturally clear blue skies, the fissures opening up in the lawn provide a back-drop of unease, mirroring the boiling emotions and frayed tempers within the family.
Related in the third person from the points of view of Robert’s wife and all three adult children, the voice is elegant without being flashy. It’s not only the heat that feels physically present. Here’s the eldest son, Michael Francis, escaping momentarily from the family home:
The apparent ease and simplicity of this voice inspires me to put in my 10,000 plus hours of apprenticeship in the hope of eventually producing something of a similar ilk.
As an “undiscovered novelist”, I’m confused by the contradictory advice about making an impact from the first page. Instructions for a Heatwave opens fairly gently, with just over seven pages of the matriarch reflecting on the heat and on her family as she goes about her morning routine. It’s only towards the end of this that we see her beginning to wonder why her husband has not returned from the corner shop. I was going to say that it’s the beautiful voice and the play of her neuroses that sustain the reader through these fairly humdrum events but, having read the blurb at the back of the book, we know Robert isn’t coming back before she does. Would I have been as gripped if “inciting incident” had not been foreshadowed by the blurb?
The individual members of the Riordan family each bring their own disappointments and failures to the communal crisis, magnifying the problem and enhancing the confrontation and conflict. It’s their flaws and quirks that make the characters especially endearing, as well as contributing the subplots of the novel. Aoife, the youngest of the three by ten years, is perhaps the most appealing. Regarded as the dunce and black sheep of the family, she’s been a raging ball of anger and anxiety since the day she was born. Here the “historical” setting is played to advantage as, unlike her family and teachers, the contemporary reader has no difficulty diagnosing Aoife’s problem and giving it a name.
Aoife’s attempts to hide her dyslexia threaten her relationship with her partner and the job she adores. Her mother, father and two siblings also have secrets which, in the course of the novel, are gradually revealed. I’d love a glimpse of the wall charts, post-it notes, flow diagrams or whatever Maggie O’Farrell used to blend these various plotlines together. My curiosity about what had happened and whether it would all come out in the wash had me turning the pages. Yet, once it was over, some scepticism crept in about the methods through which both the father’s and the mother’s secrets were uncovered. Perhaps the wrong lesson to learn, but what I take from this is that it doesn’t have to be perfect if you have the skills to entice the reader into your world.
Dialogue without the information dump
Discovering these hidden truths is as important for the adult children in this family as it is for the reader. Their shifting relationships with each other and with the events that have shaped their lives are central to the novel. However, to show every detail of the confessions and revelations, could lead to some heavy dialogue. Maggie O’Farrell avoids this, while still letting us see the impact of the information on the characters, by switching from dialogue to flashback and back again. For example, when Michael Francis owns up to an experience of marital infidelity:
‘… awful. Just awful. The worst thing ever.’
If it hadn’t been for the school trip, everything would have been all right …
He rolls over on to his back and looks at Aoife. She is sitting with her legs drawn up, her back to the wall. ‘Don’t hate me,’ he says. (p207-215)
I’m sure another reading would teach me much more, but I think that’s enough to be going on with so I’ll pass over to you now. If you’ve read Instructions for a Heatwave, what did you think of it? If you’re a writer, are there any novels you’ve found particularly useful in teaching you how to write?