This week, I finished reading ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’, by Maggie O’Farrell.
The review below contains my thoughts on the book from a writing perspective. Please note that there will be spoilers.
The title of the book ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’, and its cover design, were the first things that made me pull the book off the shelf (in a charity shop in my home town). I admit that sometimes I am guilty of judging a book by it’s cover, but I do believe that a book title and cover design, which have both evolved together beautifully in modern times, play a powerful part in informing us of the genre of a book and what we are to expect from it. I believe the cover design should be a big bay-window into the world of a story; illuminating theme, plot, mood and feeling. For instance, a key chain hanging from the back of a chair, might indicate to the reader that there is a deep-set mystery in a house that needs to be unlocked. A bridge over stormy waters might indicate that there is a dangerous, suspenseful adventure to endure, across continents. I have always been intrigued by cover design. When I finally finish writing my first novel, I will hope to have had some input into the cover design – to ensure that it is giving the reader a precise visual story into the world of my novel.
The cover for Instructions for a Heatwave depicts a still-life table setting situated in front of a window; with a light fabric curtain blowing in the breeze. Through the open window we see white clouds on a backdrop of light blue sky. Words that summarize this setting are pastel-stripes, sun, summer, heat, domestic setting and home. This cover summarizes the book perfectly because the setting takes place in London, in 1976, when a very long and uncomfortable heatwave had occurred. Having read this on the back of the cover, I have a very good reason to believe that I might not have actually chosen the book after all; but that the book had chosen me! The very reason for this, is that my Mum had been pregnant with me in that very summer of 1976, and she has often recounted how tiring and uncomfortable that very summer was carrying me around, under her cotton Seventie’s dresses! This book had an immediate personal affect on me, even if it was only because of the time and setting. I was intrigued to know more – to get insight into a time and a world, when I had not yet seen daylight.
Throughout the book, the reader is placed amidst the tremendous heat, beside the characters, inside their houses. To summarize the story, it is one of family, and the chemistry between that family, through a moving event in their lives.
The story begins with a Mother, a Wife, carrying out a domestic action in the kitchen. We are then introduced to a Father, the Husband, who decides to go to the shop that morning (as he usually does) but doesn’t return. The author then holds the suspense of the disappearance, by introducing us to the three siblings and their worlds. We enter their homes, their lives, meet their partners and their children. And here we learn how siblings can turn out to be very different; even when they have derived from the same close-knit family such as this one. The Mother and Father, unsurprisingly, have had a powerful impact on their children, throughout their lives. The author writes so authentically about this family’s chemistry, that at times it mirrored my own family! We see the arguments, the psychological mind-games, the care, the ‘not-talking’, the laughs, the bonds, the knowing of each other inside-and-out. This book is family-drama writing at it’s best.
In this story, we have siblings that embrace the Irish Catholic family traditions – such as wanting a loving and caring family of their own. And we have siblings that tend to knock the tradition sideways and tell us that we live in modern times and old beliefs are no longer valid – as in when we see the younger sibling ‘Aoife’ (Eve) moving away from her family and home. I had a strong sense of the Mother psychologically struggling to try to keep the Irish traditions valid in her children – whilst they are up against a new, evolving, modern world in which they are living.
You could say that although the theme of this book is about a missing person, it doesn’t entirely focus on this part at all. It is not really an investigation into how the Father disappeared, or where he is; but it is how a family are brought together and how they deal with such an awful event in their lives (and how they are going to solve it). We have the characters search their homes for clues of his disappearance, but there is no sense of urgency, no police or search teams.
As the book goes on, we learn that the Mother had told her children lies and had held the lie for many years. And these lies were (from my perspective) an attempt to keep the Irish tradition alive – for a Mother and Father to set a perfect example for their children.
But in all of this, we realise that lies cause damage and although humans are capable of forgiving, it is in the forgetting that we have trouble. There is no doubt that these lies had a negative affect on the children, but at the same time, we understand why the Mother may have hidden the truth through the pressure of religion and tradition at that time. We understand that there may have never been a right moment for her to speak the truth – and so the lie had festered – until one fine day it had been revealed to all. At the same time that these lies are revealed, so are other family-related issues in the past that appear on the Father’s side; and this leads us to the very reason as to why the Father had disappeared.
I found myself tearful at times when I read certain paragraphs in the book; that spoke of the childhood memories. It reminded me of my own family – my Uncles, Aunts, Nans, Grandads, Mum, Dad, and my three Sisters – and all the great times we have enjoyed and still speak about to this day. Isn’t it ironic that sadness exists in happy memories? I think that there is a certain sadness in time moving forward – and this story is very powerful in bringing that concept to light.
This story shows us how parents and our own childhood have a profound impact on our adult lives, in our thought processes, in our beliefs, and in our actions. On a darker note, we also learn how we are all capable of lying to protect loved ones; sometimes even to set good examples, become good role models.
At the end of the book, we learn that even after the character’s became aware of the lies, they were still able to forgive each other – because they are family. Learning to forgive, might possibly be one of the most important things that we can all learn in life.
At the end of the book, the Father returns – having dealt with certain problems in his life that happened long before he had met his Wife. It appears that it may have been important for the author to have the Father deal with his own problems away from his family, and for the Mother and siblings to deal with theirs, together. May be the separation was a powerful contrast to the pulling together of family in the end.
Looking at the book, as a whole, we feel like we have dropped in on this family’s life for a short but important moment in time; just like we would with a soap opera. We have confidence that when the Father walks through the door again, that their lives will continue – even though the chemistry and opinions between them may have changed. This tells a perfect story of life-continuing and getting through it’s ups and downs. We have faith that this family will stick together through thick and thin.
This was a great book to read about family. I must admit that this review was a huge challenge to write – partly because it is far from the genres I know well, partly because it was so tightly woven and cleverly written, and partly because I had to think more deeply about the life-themes in this book.
This book was unlike any other book I have read; where I could pick out certain obvious plot points, clever twist workings, character changes etc. Everything in this book seemed to meld into one fine, natural, roll of fabric that was hard to pucker. This is why I had no choice but to focus on the themes.
I do hope I have given the book justice. If there are any elements of the book that you would like me to discuss or dig into further then please ask. Thank you for reading.
The next book review will be on a horror novel called ‘Life Expectancy’, by Dean Koontz; which I am three-quarters of the way through reading.
Until next time, happy reading, happy writing!