Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tender tragedies

Irish author has light but effective touch in engrossing family drama

  • Print
O'Farrell is at her best when she is light-handed with tragedy, allowing humour and anxiety equal play.

Enlarge Image

O'Farrell is at her best when she is light-handed with tragedy, allowing humour and anxiety equal play.

A blanket of unseasonable heat has settled over London, bringing with it a blooming of aphids.

The Drought Act has been initiated, forcing citizens to restrict water usage to drinking, washing and the flushing of toilets. Women strip to the bare minimum of acceptable clothing and the city collectively groans in the heat.

But it soon becomes clear that the weather is the least of anyone's concerns in this absorbing family drama.

Instructions for a Heat Wave is award-winning Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell's sixth novel and her first to be published in Canada, and it echoes the preoccupations of her oeuvre: romantic love, loss and betrayal, and the ties that bind families -- sometimes with a choking strength.

In the midst of the country's unheard-of scorcher, aging Gretta Riordan and her husband, Robert, are carrying on with their routines: Gretta continues to bake bread every morning, and Robert continues to fetch the paper as she sets the steaming loaves on the table. But one morning, Robert steps out "for a moment" and disappears altogether.

The crisis summons siblings Michael, Monica and Aoife home to aid their mother in her hour of need. As they explore the roots of their father's vanishing act, they are also forced to test the strength of their bonds with each other, and with their own fragmented families.

Set in 1976 England, Ireland and New York, Wave's chapters jump from character to character as each navigates his or her childhood memories.

At first, the three siblings appear typecast: Michael, the pompous academic; Monica, the buttoned-up A-type; and Aoife, the rebellious creative. But within the thick borders of each archetype, O'Farrell gradually allows unique details to blossom.

Perhaps the most interesting portrait is that of Aoife. Working as a photographer's assistant in New York, Aoife believes she has allowed herself a life apart from the suffocating Riordans.

But she's carried her heaviest burden across the Atlantic: she is dyslexic. O'Farrell's meticulous exploration of this disability, which the characters view as a shameful personal failing, results in some of the novel's most effective passages.

"(Letters) clustered and rearranged themselves before her eyes, they dissolved themselves from their linear left-right structure and formed themselves into long, wavering columns, top to bottom; they swayed and flexed, like long grasses in a wind."

However convincingly drawn, the characters' difficulties -- often stemming from miscommunication and misunderstanding -- can occasionally weigh the narrative down.

O'Farrell is at her best when she is light-handed with tragedy, allowing humour and anxiety equal play. She can also be tender, particularly with Gretta's confusion and inertia: "She is so used to him being here, being around, that she can't quite accept he has disappeared. She finds herself almost on the verge of speaking to him: this morning, she got two teacups down from the shelf."

Readers unfamiliar with O'Farrell's work might scan the cover and dismiss Instructions for a Heat Wave as "chick lit." But fans of Alice Munro and Carol Shields would be unwise to ignore O'Farrell's Canadian debut.

If they read it, chances are they'll thank Robert for disappearing and allowing them the chance to eavesdrop on this family conversation, in all its messy glory.

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A1

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Winnipeg Cheapskate: Travel getaway tips

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A pelican comes in for a landing Wednesday afternoon on the Red River at Lockport, Manitoba - Standup photo- June 27, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • June 24, 2012 - 120624  -  Amusement riders on the last day of The Ex Sunday June 24, 2012.    John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Are you concerned about the death of a seal at the Assiniboine Park Zoo?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google