Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

I think when I began reading Instructions for a Heatwave that my expectations were too high. I’d anticipated what it would be about, going off the book blurb:

Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back.

The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children – two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce – back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.

I thought the novel would be mainly about Robert’s disappearance and I was wrong, for that isn’t discussed very much until the last quarter of the book. From the opening paragraphs, which I thought were wonderful (see this post) the novel is then concerned with Gretta  and her grown-up children – their childhood years, current situations and their relationships. All of which is fascinating in itself but I wanted to know about Robert. And Robert as a character is only seen through the others’ eyes. I think it was this aspect of the book that bothered me- Robert is not only missing, he is missing from the book itself.

Whilst I was reading this, Ian Rankin’s splendid book, Saints of the Shadow Bible came out and I abandoned Instructions for a Heatwave and lost myself in the Rebus/Fox crime mystery. Coming back to Maggie O’Farrell’s book, I realised that I was approaching it in the wrong way; it’s a character driven book, not plot driven. But, having said that the last quarter of the book, or so, moves much more quickly, things happen and the mystery of Robert’s disappearance is resolved.

The characterisation is very good, I could imagine all the people, and got infuriated at some of their behaviour. They’re not very likeable people but as I read on they did grow on me, especially Aoifa, who has undiagnosed dyslexia! But the heat that was definitely a presence in beginning of the book gets lost as the back story is developed. Whilst I found the mix of present and past tense a bit annoying it certainly clarified what were and what weren’t flashbacks.

I’m still in two minds about the book, for me it was both disappointing and compelling reading.  I would really like to re-read this book some time, now I know what to expect and think maybe I’d appreciate more. It’s shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, along with Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (I have an unread copy), Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop (who died in July), All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. I’d like to read all these! The winner will be announced on 6 January 2014.

First Chapter: Instructions for a Heatwave

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph or (a few) of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

I’ve just started to read Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. I loved an earlier book by her, The Hand That First Held Mine, and so far this one looks just as good.

It begins:

The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from her 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 onto the floor, against the side of the table.

Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.

I like this opening, setting the scene and establishing the heat as a physical presence, a character to be reckoned with. This is July 1976 and London is in the grip of a heatwave. (It was not just London, because I remember it very well where I was living in Cheshire in the north-west.) Gretta’s husband pops out of the house to buy a newspaper – but he doesn’t come back – this is a story of a family in crisis.

I’m drawn into this book right from the beginning – what do you think? Would you keep reading?

New-To-Me Books

I went to Barter Books in Alnwick last week and was really delighted to find these books:

Heatwave etcFrom the bottom up they are:

  • Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell – this was right at the top of a bookcase, far too high up for me to reach, but a helpful member of staff got it down for me. It’s one I’ve had on my wishlist since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which I thought was excellent. This is her sixth book and is a portrait of a family in crisis during the heatwave in 1976.
  • The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate – this is the book to read in October for Cornflower’s Reading Group. I read about on the morning I was going to Barter Books  was amazed to find a good hardback copy just as though I’d reserved it. The shooting party takes place in autumn 1913 – ‘Here is a whole society under the microscope, a society soon to be destroyed.’ I began reading it in the shop whilst having a cup of coffee and it promises to be really good.
  • Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie – I always check which Agatha Christie books are in at Barter Books. Sometimes there aren’t any I haven’t read, but this time there were two. This one does not feature Poirot or Miss Marple, not like the TV adaptation that had Miss Marple (in the form of Geraldine McEwan), solving the mystery. In her Autobiography Agatha Christie wrote that ‘of her detective books the two that satisfy me best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence.’ (An Autobiography page 538)
  • Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie – I was so pleased to find this book as it’s one of the best-selling books of all time and one I’ve never read, although I remember the basics of the plot from TV/film versions. I’ve beenlooking out for it for ages. The book was originally published in 1939, when the title would have given little offence in the UK, but it was different in the USA and it was first published there in 1940, a few months later, as And Then There Were None. This copy was published in 1968 in the UK and still has its original title, as the book continued to be published under this title until 1985 . I was quite startled, though, to see the cover picture showing a golliwog:

Ten Little Niggers

I’m looking forward to reading all of them – and the pleasurable problem now is deciding which one to read first – it maybe Ten Little Niggers! Again quoting from her Autobiography, Agatha Christie wrote that:

It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been. (page 488)