August 22, 2017


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Tender tragedies

Irish author has light but effective touch in engrossing family drama

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/6/2013 (1529 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.

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

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

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.


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