It really is a miserable old Sunday today: grey skies, drizzle on and off, chilly and damp and still the leaves are coming down after the protracted hot summer, now vanished. A walk through the village which ends across the sodden churchyard confirms that end of the year, end of life, feeling with tombstones just hidden behind the trees, now nearly naked of leaves and with the grounds covered. The days are getting shorter and shorter and before you know it the light fades and it’s time to close the curtains and switch on the lights.
It’s that pre-christmas time of the year when every self-respecting newspaper starts publishing their ‘best books for Christmas gifts’ lists, or the 100 must read novels and non-fiction books. I’ll come to those some other time, there’s still plenty of reading to do and still many on my own lists that I want to read.
I like O’Farrell’s writing, her stories of Irish families and characters have a gentleness about them, despite the sometimes shocking and heartbreaking revelations, delivered in a razor-sharp and brilliantly observed style. This story of an Irish woman who on the face of it is justifiably, even if annoyingly, self-righteous and a devout catholic, with three grown up children, leaves you gasping for air. You want to follow them all and see how they deal with their own difficulties and shortcomings whilst at the same time you cringe about the only too familiar barriers and misunderstandings that siblings and parents build up between them over a lifetime. O’Farrell is excellent at developing the different points of view within short chapters that reveal each and every one of the characters and their attitudes as the story unfolds.
Anyone with more than one sibling or with more than one child will know how different closely related people can be, they could often have ended up in one family arriving from different planets, rather than from the same set of parents.
Instructions for a heatwave are presumably instructions to the effect that it is better to sit back, relax and remain calm when difficult situations arise, nevertheless it is very difficult to do just that when it is glaringly and uncomfortably hot, and situations become almost too difficult to deal with when all these different factors, misunderstandings, built up resentments and differences in characters and relationships start to play.
O’Farrell deals beautifully with the developments when Gretta’s husband disappears from the breakfast table one hot summer morning in London and one after the other of the three children is roped in to try to help her and each other out in finding him. There’s Monica the eldest daughter, now married for the second time, living in remote Gloucestershire, the stepmother of two girls who don’t want her and who do their utmost to make her feel miserable and unwanted. Monica has always been the favourite child but she has seen things as a child she shouldn’t have seen. There there is Michael Francis, the middle brother, who had such high hopes and great dreams but who got his girlfriend pregnant and is now the father of two children in a teaching job he hates and a wife who wants a second chance education. The youngest girl Aoife (Ee-fah, not Evie) has gone away to America to escape the constant sense of inferiority because she is unable to read and no one in her family is sympathetic, rather she is considered to be the ‘difficult’ one. Aoife was born after a number of miscarriages and howled her way through babyhood and childhood and never learns to read or write properly. This is the 1960s and 70s, when there is little understanding of dyslexia.
I loved this book – and am a great admirer of Maggie O’Farrell’s writing.