When Instructions for a Heatwave appeared on my book club’s reading long list, I made sure it got shortlisted. O’Farrell had won the Costa Novel award in 2010 with The Hand that First Held Mine and the blurb for Instructions appealed to me: it’s set in July 1976 and although I was only nine at the time I have a clear memory of the heat wave of the title that gripped Britain that year. So: a prize winning author; a nostalgic setting – what’s not to like?
Plenty, as it turns out. For a start there is no real sense of drought. It takes more than mentioning aphids, a standpipe and feeling hot, to really get under the skin of life without water on tap. Reproducing sections of the Drought Act 1976 to mark the different sections of the book only serves to underline how little of the ‘heatwave’ finds its way into the narrative.
If O’Farrell only pays lip-service to the setting, then the characters are likewise superficially drawn. Take one garrulous Irish matriarch “Mammy”, add an absent “Daddy”; throw in a handful of children simultaneously experiencing life crises; season with an Irish name, Catholic references and a dash of sexual hypocrisy – and make sure lots of characters’ points of view bubble to the surface, preferably multiple times within the same chapter!
Harsh? Perhaps. It is, I suppose, a pleasant enough read, if that’s what you want but I wanted – and expected – much, much more, principally because of O’Farrell’s “Costa winner” moniker.
Lies, damned lies, and book awards….
0 Don’t bother
[I might still try The Hand that First Held Mine one day, if only to satisfy my curiosity!]