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Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

Friday, April 12, 2013

Publisher: Tinder Press
Format: Hardback
Rating: 4/5

It's 1976. Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta he is popping out to get a paper, as he does every morning. However, Robert does not return. With the help of her grown up children, scattered near and far, Gretta sets about piecing together the mystery of Robert's disappearance and a host of family secrets are forced into the open. 

Wow. I loved this novel. This is my first Maggie O'Farrell and there's no denying that she's a gifted storyteller. It just goes to show, the simplest idea can make for the best story when handled properly. Oftentimes, a book has a brilliant, original premise but then it goes off the rails somewhere near the middle (like The Age of Miracles) but this seemingly common plot was given a new lease of life by Maggie O'Farrell. I actually wanted someone to read it to me (preferably in an Irish accent) and I usually dislike audiobooks (mainly because I associate them with going to sleep). 

First of all, the characters were so very vivid and vibrant and whole. I think I once heard that one of the differences between Pixar films and other animated films was that the Pixar characters had a sense of weight to them, which added to the realness (please correct me if I just made that up). Anyway, the characters in Instructions for a Heatwave had weight - they were alive. Even the children and the characters who were not actually present. Gretta might be one of my favourite characters in a long time - partly because she reminded me of my own grandmother who's name is very similar. I truly felt for Monica too - such a complex character but I think many eldest daughter's will relate to her. 

Secondly, the setting: the heatwave of 1976. As Maggie O'Farrell mentions in the notes at the end of the book, the heatwave is part of our nation's collective memory. My mum always talks about how they gave out ice lollies during her exams. You could feel the heaviness, the closeness, the irritability caused by this drought and Robert's disappearance. 

Again, as with Eleanor & Park, there was the theme of identity - first generation/ second generation issues. Gretta's thoughts about the treatment of the Irish in England made me think of my grandparents' stories. They frequently speak of the signs back then proclaiming "No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish". Then Gretta's anger at the way her entitled children have grown up, not knowing the kind of prejudice she experienced but complaining nonetheless. Yes, they got teased at school but it wasn't quite the same. This whole internal argument on pages 258 - 259 definitely required pause for thought. 

I could go on for ages about this novel but I really couldn't do it justice. I would just be saying 'I loved this...I loved that' for pages so I will stop here and suggest you get a copy for your summer holidays. 

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