Maggie O’Farrell is one of those authors who I always keep meaning to get around to reading. Instructions for a Heatwave was one of the biggest sellers in 2013 and I always intended to read it, but it didn’t ever find it’s way onto my reading pile.
Still, I knew a lot of people had read it, and the book had received critical acclaim, so when I heard of a new novel – This Must Be The Place – I was bizarrely excited to read it, despite having never read O’Farrell before.
This Must Be The Place tells the story of Daniel and Claudette who, at the beginning of the novel are a married couple living in a remote house in Donegal. Daniel is due to head back to America to see his family, but hears something on the radio on the way which sends him digging back into his past. The ramifications of the secret he’s hiding have a massive impact on his marriage and his family.
The story is told in the non-linear structure that most books seem to favour these days – on a side note, there must be a better way of putting that, terms like ‘time slip’ and ‘time jump’ always imply time travel to me. Google seems to suggest anachronistic, so I’m going with that.
The story is told anachronistically, a form that most books seems to favour these days and we learn of both Daniel and Claudette’s lives, before and after they met.
O’Farrell uses this structure to good effect to help us colour in their lives, and the supporting characters, particularly their children, seem vivid and real, however there are events with them that get avoided or brushed over in order to focus on the deconstruction of their marriage, despite some of these events being the driving force in Daniel’s behaviour.
The actual breakdown of the marriage happens off screen, we don’t really get to witness it, which feels bizarre, and in fact, there are many elements which we don’t see. Much of this book feels like we’re seeing the bits that are happening in between the big events.
It’s a bit like reading lots of reviews of a book, but never actually reading the book itself (ironic really, considering my opening paragraph about Instructions For A Heatwave) and because of that, it feels a little difficult to connect with the characters, Claudette especially.
For the vast majority of the book, the characters are not physically together, and we only have Claudette’s point of view in the past, we never really get her take on what’s happened, which is a shame.
The anachronistic chapters and characters all seem to be heading one way, towards one inevitable conclusion, and once again we don’t get to see it, it just gets hinted at.
All that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it – I only ever deconstruct books in this much detail when I do enjoy them – because in fact, I did really like it. O’Farrell’s choice to talk around all the important events gives us the opportunity to understand the character’s a little more than we would if the same number of pages were used to describe their arguments, or the big events in the heat of the moment.
Sometimes, though, it’s just a little jarring re-entering Daniel’s life and not knowing in what condition we’re going to find him.
I’ve given This Must Be The Place 3.8 out of 5. I think if just a little bit more had been done to engage us with Claudette, then it would have bumped it up over 4.
Maybe now I should finally get round to reading Instructions For A Heatwave?