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Instructions for a Heatwave

by Maggie O'Farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2013, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2014, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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Power Reviewer Cloggie Downunder (12/04/13)

A brilliant read
Instructions For A Heatwave is the sixth novel by British author, Maggie O’Farrell. On a July Thursday at the height of Britain’s 1976 heatwave, Robert Riordan goes out as usual for the morning paper but doesn’t return. When no trace of him can be found, his wife, Gretta calls her daughter in Gloucester, Monica, who is having a drama of her own. Eventually, Gretta’s son, Michael Francis manages to contact his younger sister, Aoife in New York, and the siblings come together at their family home to decide what is to be done. It is a gathering filled with tensions, as Aoife and Monica have been estranged for years. Not only that, but undercurrents flow as each character is dealing with shameful secrets of their own. While this could make for heavy going, the dialogue between the characters, the family dynamics and some moments of delicious irony provide a comic relief that lifts the story. As O’Farrell skilfully builds her story, the various mysteries, some from more than thirty years ago, unfold over four days. Abortion, dyslexia, divorce, betrayal, adultery, draft dodging, a dead cat, an Irish convent and a deep abiding love all feature. O’Farrell’s characters are interesting and complex; they are larger than life and so very real. Her prose is a joy to experience: the feel of the heatwave is expertly conveyed and the descriptions are wonderfully evocative. “And then, it seemed to Monica, the baby opened her mouth and started to scream and that she did not stop screaming for a long time. ……She screamed if laid flat, even for a moment…….her legs would work up and down, as if she was a toy with a winding mechanism, her face would crumple in on itself and the room would fill with jagged sounds that could have cut you, if you’d stood too close.” and “She cannot read. She cannot do that thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemise them into meaning.” are just two examples. A brilliant read.
Jan Zahrly (08/08/13)

Instructions for a Heatwave
Every time I get to the end of a Maggie O'Farrell novel, I want to scream, “More. What happened next?” O'Farrell always leaves me hanging and Instructions for a Heatwave was no exception. This is a family book, about adult children's frustrations, about efforts to be the “best child” of the three, about running away, about marriage or non-marriage. The adult children's problems are the true basis of this story, not about their run-away father. And it ends up about their relationships with the mother.

Only near the end of the book do we start to learn of the giant hypocrisy of the mother. There is envy, pity, frustration and anger, too. The father disappears – no note, no information for the mother. He just does not come back from getting the newspaper. The three children start gathering near the mother, when they can pull away from their own family/relationship dilemmas. The two sisters are not speaking to each other and have been this way for three years. Wow, how can you hang on to conflict and misunderstanding with your own sister for three years?

When one of the sisters discovers that daddy-dearest has been sending a steady stream of money, every month, to “Assumpta,” things really start to fall apart. These adult children start figuring out what has been happening or not happening with their parents and with each other. The book starts in London in the middle of a heat wave with water rationing and ends in Ireland where the parents were born. And it ends in hope. I can not write anymore because it would spoil your reading.
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Beyond the Book:
  The Heatwave of 1976

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