Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell has just been published by Tinder Press and is simply wonderful. As I read I had that delicious feeling of sinking into the novel, trusting the story to unfold beautifully, knowing I was in the hands of an expert. The huge difference between short stories and novels is how one can relax with a novel and savour it over a period of time. It becomes something to look forward to in a day, a treat, whereas a short story has to be read in one go – there’s an urgency to it, an immediacy.
Set in July 1976 when the UK was in the midst of a heatwave this tells the story of the Riordans, a family who reunite when Robert Riordan, a retired banker, goes out for his morning paper and doesn’t return.
Festering bad feelings between sisters Aoife and Monica come to a head, their mother, Gretta, a familiar Irish matriarchal type (who reminds me of some of my aunts) reveals long held secrets, son Michael Francis and his wife have a relationship at breaking point, and Aoife has carried a secret of her own all her life. O’Farrell reveals their truths with perfect timing. And oh, the pictures she paints are glorious. Her writing is gorgeous, the words slip by, effortlessly creating images and racking up the tension as if in a thriller.
“The beach and water shimmer and refract in the heat; seaweed dries to rocks; sand cracks and powders in the sun.”
And aren’t you seeing that beach now?
The list looks interesting and includes Maggie O’Farrell’s next novel.
They sent me a proof of Snapper by Brain Kimberling which bears the tagline “Birdwatching’s no line of work for a man…”
Kimberling was “a research assistant for a major study of Indiana songbirds” as is his narrator, Nathan Lochmueller, and Snapper is really a collection of Nathan’s stories in which he tells us anecdotes from his adolescence and life as a young man, closing with a story in which he is about to become a father, and thus, presumably, an adult.
Weaving throughout the stories is the character of Lola, a gorgeous young woman whom Nathan idolises and occasionally gets to be with before she floats away with yet another unsuitable suitor.
In my time reading for PANK magazine I’ve come across hundreds of submissions by American males which involve guns, hunting, drugs, beer and women. They are staples of American short stories, and I suppose that’s my main problem with this collection, it felt very familiar. However, thinking on, if you don’t read for an American literary journal then it’s unlikely you will have read umpteen similar tales. Crucially these stories are well-written with a powerful sense of place. The author seems to have a love/hate relationship with his home and conveys well both the beauty and the ugliness. Kimberling’s knowledge of birds can be fascinating, but, I confess, at times I felt a little bored.
The stand out story for me was “Box County” which opens with the line, “Uncle Dart and Aunt Loretta didn’t just come from Texas, they brought it with them.”
It’s an exploration of the difference between the Texan racism of Uncle Dart and the burning hatred of the Southern Klansmen he finds himself entangled with. It has much to say about home and belonging, family, and nature.
I think this is one of those books that didn’t quite chime with me but will hold magic for others.