Wednesday, July 24, 2013

First Pages in Fiction: Instructions for a Heatwave

The first paragraph of a short story and/or the first page of a novel can be a microcosm that sets the foundation for what's to follow in terms of tone, character and story intent.

Here are the first few paragraphs from the novel, Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell:

Highbury, London 

The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.

Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.

Consider her now, yanking open the oven and grimacing in its scorching blasts as she pulls out the bread tin. She is in her nightdress, hair still wound into curlers. She takes two steps backwards and tips the steaming loaf into the sink, the weight of it reminding her, as it always does, of a baby, a newborn, the packed, damp warmth of it.

She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that. Of course, living in London, it is impossible to get buttermilk; she has to make do with a mixture of half milk and half yogurt. A woman at Mass told her it worked and it does, up to a point, but it is never quite the same.

This is a story about a family thrown into crisis when the patriarch, Robert Riordan, a retired bank employee--husband of Gretta and father to three adult children--disappears on a hot summer morning in 1976. Gretta reaches out to her children in an effort to find Robert, but as the story unravels, it soon becomes clear that her children are more lost than her husband (on a psychological and emotional level), as each child is facing challenges in his/her personal life and in relationship to each other. The nature of secrets, estrangement and shame rise to the forefront of the narrative. 

O'Farrell sets up those first four paragraphs to reflect an ominous restlessness amid actions of normal, daily life. This would appear a day like many others ("She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life"), but something about this particular day is and will be different. For starters, Gretta is baking, operating the oven, amid a heatwave and the reference to the need to substitute buttermilk in the recipe ("A woman at Mass told her it worked and it does, up to a point, but it is never quite the same") might be a metaphor indicative that perhaps, amid the crucible of events that unfold over the course of the novel, the ingredients that make up this Irish-Catholic family might never be the same, either.  

The kitchen often symbolizes the center of family life and if you look at the language O'Farrell employs, the tactile sense of the bread reminds Gretta of a baby ("...a newborn, the packed damp warmth of it"), which seems reflective of the implications of Gretta's children in this story.

In a few short sentences, O'Farrell evokes a sense of the oppressive, stifling heat that mirrors the brooding, pressured confinement of the story and how, as stated later in the book, "Strange weather brings out strange behavior." It's also interesting to note that O'Farrell relies on an Irish comfort food to anchor and ultimately juxtapose the coziness of family life against the idea that the "heat" in these lives is about to get turned up.

See how much you can learn about a book from the first page?

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95 Hardcover, 9780385349406 304 pages
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
To order this book via INDIEBOUND, link HERE