Set in the blistering heatwave of 1976, Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth novel focuses on the reverberations within a family when its patriarch vanishes. Robert Riordan gets up one morning, follows his usual morning routine, goes out to get the paper – and then is gone. The novel is demarcated with various warnings from the newly-formed Ministry of Drought, giving the reader a sense of how ordinary rules have been suspended, that sometimes people do go mad in the heat. A teenager with a bright future ceases exam revision and instead whiles away her days doing laps of the lake in Hyde Park in a pedalo, the local newsagent starts carrying on with one of the Brownie Leaders and the respectable Mr Riordan disappears, taking his money and passport. Gretta, his wife, calls her children for help. Daughter Monica has ‘a lot on’ dealing with her stepdaughters’ cat. Eldest child Michael Francis has his own problems – he thinks he might be about to get divorced. And then there is the black sheep Aoife, the afterthought child who has taken off to New York and whose current circumstances are unclear.
Like Anne Enright’s The Gathering, this is the story of a family uniting in a crisis – a group of people who don’t like each other very much are forced to work together for a common goal: where on earth has Dad gone? As with so much of O’Farrell’s fiction, secrets lurk beneath the surface and unspoken tensions seethe. Gretta, family matriarch, is an object of puzzlement and anxiety for her children – dependent on pills, too loud, constantly talking and never on point, she is to be protected, sighed over, dismissed – and yet there is the increasing possibility that she knows more than she lets on.
As in After You’d Gone and The Distance Between Us, there are themes of siblinghood and family ties – how far can one ever truly separate from those one grows up with? Is there really any hurt strong enough to knock these ties asunder? Aoife and Monica may not have been on speaking terms for years but Aoife remains aghast at the idea of betraying her sister and the pain of Monica’s disavowal of their shared upbringing mark one of the most painful passages of the novel. Aoife looks at her sister in agony, reflecting on how Monica had cleaned her scabby knees, walking down the street holding her hand, taught her how to put on make-up and yet now stares through her, as if it had never happened. Each of the Riordan children are harbouring their own secret shames, they all have something to hide.
The Riordans are a family out of place – Irish Catholic immigrants living in London. As the daughter of a Northern Irish woman, I felt as though this was a family whose grammar I understood, I recognised the confusion of the second-generation immigrants on English soil. When Michael meets his in-laws for the first time, he has to pause to deconstruct the meaning of the sentence, “If I could possibly trouble you, would you mind passing me the salt?” I know I am not Irish, neither are Robert and Gretta’s children, but in culture, linguistics and dialect, I will never be quite English either. A cursory glance at Maggie O’Farrell’s personal bio reveals her to be in the same demographic.
Many of the characters were tricky to warm to – Michael Francis ‘knocked up a Prod’ while studying for his PhD and mourns the loss of the life he might otherwise have had. Monica grieves for her failed first marriage, even whilst apparently ensconced in rural tranquility in the midst of her second. Claire, Michael Francis’ wife, appears cold and uncaring – although one increasingly sees where she is coming from. Gretta is loud and large and looming – O’Farrell conjures her up vividly as the overpowering matriarch and with the author’s trademark ear for dialogue, I found myself cringing along with her children at her repetitive speeches and martyr-attitude. Still, O’Farrell’s skill is the fact that over time, we come to see beyond the all too apparent flaws and into the person instead.
My personal favourite character was Aoife, the family scapegrace. Born late, wailing and crying, Aoife was a difficult child deemed unteachable by the nuns but O’Farrell reveals her as an undiagnosed dyslexic, struggling as a functional illiterate and desperate to hide her condition from her employer, her boyfriend and indeed anyone she comes into contact with. Despite her rough edges, Aoife is the novel’s compassionate heart, dispensing wisdom to her brother, forgiveness for her sister and understanding for her mother. I wished that the novel had been able to give her greater resolution. Indeed, the story seemed to draw to a close all too soon, with more than one loose end left hanging. Many will see this as allowing the reader to fill in the blanks, but personally I would have liked a little bit more before the curtain fell.
This is a lovely novel – I loved the way that the heat lurked in the background like a silent character, arriving in the opening paragraph ‘like a guest who has outstayed his welcome’ and never leaving. Farrell has established herself as a reliable story-teller but what makes her truly remarkable is her dreamy imagery and apparently effortless prose. I can always picture her characters, they are always convincing and linger in my imagination long after I have closed the book. In Instructions For A Heatwave, we sense inhibitions being dropped in the heat, secrets slipping out and how the heat, oh the heat, can bring stories long left unspoken to the surface. A wonderful book for O’Farrell fans both old and new.
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Published by Hachette UK on February 28th 2013
Genres: Fiction, General
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