The air is like a solid entity

Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave
by Maggie O’Farrell

This is a lovely book, a sort of family saga that only covers a month or so of time but manages to encompass whole lives lived and deftly investigates family relationships of all varieties.

In the summer of 1976, Britain was in the grip of a now-legendary heatwave and drought, and O’Farrell uses excerpts from the hastily introduced Drought Act 1976 to intersperse the action. The effects of the heat and water shortage are filtered through one family: the Riordans. Gretta knows her husband Robert is struggling a little to adapt to retirement but she doesn’t expect him to just go missing one day. Their three adult children hurry home to help with the search, but they bring with them their own baggage and conflicts.

“The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the 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 into the floor.”

The children are quite different but what they share is that the distinct effects of their childhood can be discerned in their adult selves. Middle child Michael Francis struggles to balance his desire to keep his wife and children happy with his unfulfilled ambition to move to America and be a rock star of the academic world, a desire that is driving his wife away from him. Youngest child Aoife is dyslexic but at a time before such things were known about, she has spent her life hiding her shame at her inability to read, which led to her being labelled fractious and difficult. Oldest child Monica spent the latter half of her childhood effectively raising Aoife, as their mother was often too tired or ill, and her adult life is defined by her wish not to be a mother.

“She cannot read. She cannot do that thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemise them into meaning…She can stack up words inside herself but she cannot get these words down her arm, through her fingers and out on to a page. She doesn’t know why this is. She suspects that, as a baby, she crossed paths with a sorcerer who was in a bad mood that day and…decided to suck this magical ability from her, to leave her cast out, washed up on the shores of illiteracy and ignorance, cursed for ever.”

There are many secrets hiding in cupboards for the Riordan family, some of which are revealed early on in the novel (and therefore included in the previous paragraph), some of which are hinted at and then gradually revealed, while others come completely out of left field, or so it seems. This is partly the effect of the family’s (or at least the parents’) Catholicism, which puts pressure on them all in ways that perhaps wouldn’t have been true for a less religious family. But then again it is 1976, and some of the events recounted are years before that, so at least some of the social pressure is simply of its time. Being Catholic doesn’t just give them all a higher level of guilt, it also makes them different from the people around them so that there are times when they close ranks as a family. Gretta and Robert are both Irish but living in London, and it’s worth remembering that the IRA was at the height of its terrorist activities in the 1970s, so having an Irish connection was another way to be shunned by your English neighbours.

All of which makes this sound like quite a serious book, and certainly it deals with some serious issues, but it does so with warmth and love, not to mention humour. It was a joy to be in the Riordans’ company, even while they were all being incredibly frustrating in their various and different ways. It’s also a very atmospheric book, with a real sense of the heat of that summer and evocative descriptions of its various settings.

“Conversations with his mother can be confusing meanders through a forest of meaning in which nobody has a name and characters drop in and out without warning. You needed to get a toehold, just a slight grasp on your orientation, ascertain the identity of one dramatis persona and then, with any luck, the rest would fall into place.”

One thing that struck me was the realisation that the three adult children are all younger than me. They seem so sure that the paths of their lives are decided, that they are where they will stay, but they’re all in their 20s – so much could still change for them if they can only find their way. Again, this is partly a product of the times. People married and had children much younger then, and such commitments do have a tendency to make big life changes harder to make! But it’s also a bit clever on O’Farrell’s part, combining the uncertainties and the sureness of youth – the children know they are flawed, they fret about it and even try to change, but they are so certain they know themselves inside out when we, as readers, can see that they have plenty left to learn on that score.

As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be adding O’Farrell to my list of authors to buy in future.

Published 2013 by Tinder Press.

Source: Foyles Bookshop, Bristol.

You’re gonna get screwed but good in this town

Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin

After hearing this book praised left, right and centre since I started book blogging I figured I had to give it a go. And what a joy it is!

This is the first in what has turned out to be a very long-running series about a large cast of characters in San Francisco. In this book (I don’t know if this is true of any of the rest) the focus is on a boarding house on Russian Hill run by the inimitable Anna Madrigal (who grows her own weed and claims to have been raised in a whorehouse), and in particular her tenant Mary Ann Singleton. Mary Ann has newly arrived in the city from Cleveland and her sweet naivety is in for a shock. Or several shocks.

According to something I heard on Radio 4 (I think it was on A Good Read) the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which this started life as a serial, kept a tally of straight versus gay sex scenes because there was a concern about it being “too gay”. Which tells you a little about the book. It is outrageous and wickedly funny but also intelligent and insightful. The characters lean very slightly into the larger-than-life category but they are not stereotypical or predictable. It really is an achievement that so much silliness can be so lovable.

There are dozens of storylines at work, only a couple of which are wrapped up by the end of the novel. The characters are introduced separately but their lives quickly overlap to the point where I was hard-pressed to remember who knew who from where. I’ll just have to read it again!

The extra character is, of course, the city of San Francisco. Maupin lovingly describes its streets and views and bars and people with all the little details of someone who calls it home. It is very much a tale of 1978, with an undercurrent of the politics and social nuances of the time. I was (perhaps naively) surprised by how much of the “pretentious” of middle-class life today (organic food, over-earnest attempts to appear not racist or homophobic, caring about global warming) was considered pretentious back then too. It is satirical but somehow firmly on the side of the people it satirises. Both prudish innocent (Mary Ann) and sexaholic (most everyone else) are celebrated in their own way.

I can see why it has been called a literary soap opera and it is indeed both those things. It isn’t literary in floweriness but rather in insight and cleverly spare language that gives you just enough, while finding room for some fantastic little jokes with words and meanings. So that’s six more books to add to the wishlist then, I guess!

First published in 1978 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Published in book form in 1980 by Corgi Books.