It’s been a peculiar time in old London town recently. The temperatures haven’t been excessively high, but the heat has been sooooooo oppressive. Everyone’s in a constant state of exhaustion, muttering on about how they feel vaguely ill but don’t know why. My colleague and I share an office that is 2mx3m max, and we have 4 fans blasting all day (what’s that you say? Air-con? How you jest, sir! This is Britain, we don’t plan for weather conditions in advance…) yet we still spend our time looking like this:
Then I travel home with psychotic commuters, too fatigued to reach their usual levels aggression, but absolutely furious at sharing sweltering carriages filled to capacity. This being London, none of this is expressed verbally, we just look like this:
So this week I thought I’d look at novels set around summer/heat, if only because it gives me the opportunity to quote Sir William of Idol (a life-long love) at the beginning. Firstly, the obvious choice of Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press, 2013). The drought of 1976, (laughably short-lived for those who live in countries with serious drought conditions) has passed into legend in the UK:
This time is the setting for O’Farrell’s study of a family on the brink of total disintegration.
“Strange weather brings out strange behaviour. As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring about an exchange of electrons, the division of some compounds and the unification of others, so a heatwave will act upon people. It lays them bare, wears down their guard. They start behaving not unusually but unguardedly. They act not so much out of character but deep within it.”
Robert Riordan goes out to buy a newspaper and doesn’t return. His disappearance calls his three grown-up children home to support their erratic, stubborn mother Gretta. Michael Francis’ marriage is falling apart, as is his sister Monica’s. Their younger sister Aoife returns from New York where she has been trying to build a new life, but like her siblings she finds the past still has power, its grip tightening the more you struggle against it.
“The house is full of ghosts for Gretta. If she looks quickly into the garden, she is sure she can see the ribcage of the old wooden climbing frame that Michael Francis fell off and broke his front tooth. She could go downstairs now and see the pegs in the hall full of school satchels, gym bags […] The air, for Gretta, still rings with their cries, their squabbles, their triumphs, their small griefs. She cannot believe that time of life is over. For her, it is still happening and will happen forever. The very bricks, mortar and plaster of this house are saturated with the lives of her three children. She cannot believe they have gone. And that they are back.”
This is O’Farrell’s great strength: she captures and expresses the meaning of ordinary lives with such insight and sensitivity. She exposes the dramas going on behind the front door of a London terrace house and shows just how extraordinary the everyday can be. In Instructions for a Heatwave, the family members are fully realised as individuals, and how they interact and form a unit is entirely believable. They are as flawed and infuriating, as loveable and loving as families generally are. O’Farrell is a hugely gifted writer, able to make the commonplace compelling. I highly recommend Instructions for a Heatwave, as I do all her novels.
Secondly, the wonderfully titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Vintage 2012). OK, so I’m cheating. This book is nothing to do with summer, but it has ice-cream in the title so I’ve decided the fit is good enough. I began reading this novel with some trepidation; as the narrator is born into a fug of cigarette smoke and swearing, I wondered if this was going to be a case of class tourism – let’s all laugh at/feel smugly superior to/be shocked by those on the breadline and their crazy, foul-mouthed, substance-abusing ways. However, my concerns were ill-founded, as what emerges is a finely observed portrait of Janie, her relationship with Ma, and their endurance of poverty, domestic violence, and loss. If this sounds bleak, it isn’t, because Janie just tells it like it is, without sentimentality, and at times this includes pitch-black humour. For example, as they make their escape after Ma has been beaten up by the titular Tony yet again:
“ ‘Frankie, do yeh think I could tell people this is a nose job?’
He turned his head. ‘Not with the nose on you, sis. Sorry, but not a chance.’”
But Hudson doesn’t let the humour obscure the prices the characters pay for their life decisions:
“That first promise of silence shattered inside of me like the twist of a kaleidoscope; to be joined by so many more jagged secrets, pushed into a little body for safe keeping until they threatened to cut their way out”
Janie eventually begins to glimpse a way out of the cycle, using the stubbornness she has inherited from Ma to refuse to repeat family mistakes, or settle for what is expected for her:
“When I opened the books, and I could open as many as I liked because it cost us nothing, the pictures lay on my eyes like oil on water and the dancing letters settled on my tongue with the smell and taste of black jack sweeties. While Ma bit at her lips, ripped at her cuticles and read old magazines, I was learning how stories could make me feel safe.”
Hudson has something meaningful to say, about how members of society can be demonised and demoralised by the total lack of wider concern for their lives, but ultimately what makes this book so affecting is the brilliant characterisation, whereby you’re left totally rooting for the:
“Ryan women, with filthy tempers, filthy mouths and big bruised muscles for hearts.”
Kerry Hudson blogs on WordPress here.
To end, it has to be Billy, offering a masterclass in lip-curling: