Instructions for a Heatwave
Tinder Press 2013
July 2014. It seemed appropriate to be reading a novel set in 1976 in drought-ridden Britain at roughly the same time of year and in temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius. Seeing that it took almost four days to relive the four days that an Irish Catholic family finds itself plunged into crisis, and that the reading virtually coincided with a rather more amenable visit by children and grandchildren, it was tempting to compare and contrast the two periods separated by nearly four decades; however, this is a terrific novel to enjoy at any time of year, spread over any length of time and in any circumstances, and I found it easy to resist the temptation.
July 1976. Meet the Riordans: Robert and Gretta, Irish-born, living in Highbury, London; Michael Francis, married to Claire, living in Stoke Newington; Monica, once married to Joe but now to Peter, living in Gloucestershire; and Aoife — pronounced Eefuh — living in New York. While Robert and Gretta are part of the Irish diaspora, they still own a cottage on Omey Island off Connemara, Galway, where family holidays have been taken over the years.
On the morning of Thursday July 15th Robert Riordan disappears, having popped out to buy a newspaper before breakfast. This naturally precipitates a family conference, but not before the scabs covering long-festering hurts are picked at and finally ripped off. All families have secrets, but the Riordans have more than their fair share. Why has Robert disappeared? What is the mystery concerning his brother? What’s the cause of Michael’s unease with his life? Why have Monica and younger sister Aoife, formerly very close, not communicated for ages? How has Aoife hidden her disability for so long? And what secret has the outwardly Catholic Gretta been hiding from her children and the world at large?
Maggie O’Farrell has painted well-rounded believable central characters. We learn their moods and foibles as we move from one point of view to another, their thoughts, their turns of phrase, their troubled lives. Much of the action happens in real time but, despite much of what occurs being told through inner monologues, it never drags, especially as we lurch from one revelation to another. The author’s skill particularly shows itself in the reader being able to empathise — or at least sympathise — with first one damaged individual, then another.
In amongst the recounting of thoughts and words and deeds are brief passages of prose poetry, as when O’Farrell describes heat-affected locales or the physical feel of the ferry journey from Swansea to Cork. It never feels forced, though, and the transitions from descriptions to dialogue are smooth and effortless. And as we near the end of the novel the stifling dry heat of London is gradually replaced by a cooling wetness, epitomised by a sighting of a dobhar-chú or ‘water-hound’ in the central lough of Omey Island: is it an otter? Some mythical creature? Or a figment of the imagination? Are secrets the mysterious entities lurking below the surface of family life?
The rare ability to depict the intensity of relationships burdened by past histories, but always with a light comic touch, underlines why O’Farrell is rated highly as an author — and why Instructions for a Heatwave was shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Book Awards. Unlike some novels where a continuous feed of caffeine is required for completion this one grabs and keeps the reader’s attention. It’s rare that wife, daughter and reviewer utterly agree this is a near perfect read.