The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for coping with a hot British summer


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The Independent Culture

Ailment: Coping with a hot British summer

Cure: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

A few weeks of unusually intense heat have had a weird effect on us as a nation: the pace has slowed down, dozy smiles have appeared on our faces, and the pervading mood is no longer one of resigned despondency but cautious optimism. This sea change in British consciousness is a joy to behold.

But what if it gets any hotter? Maggie O'Farrell's powerful novel is set during the British heatwave of 1976. It opens on the tenth continuous day on which temperatures have remained above 90°F. The heat "lolls heavily on sofas and chairs" like a "guest who has outstayed his welcome". Swarms of red-backed aphids appear, sticking to suncreamed limbs and disappearing into cyclists' open mouths.

Gretta is baking the soda bread that she has made throughout her marriage, not letting a little thing like a heatwave change her habits. Robert, retired, still goes to get the paper every day at 6.45am. But on this particular morning, he goes out and does not come back.

Gretta's gradual panic, followed by her inklings of where he could be, make the book compulsive reading. Meanwhile, Gretta's three grown-up children continue to sink a little deeper into their own intriguing dysfunctions – Aoife, so dyslexic as to be functionally illiterate, Monica, in love with a married man, and Michael Francis, who finds himself unable to follow when his wife begins moving into new, more glittering circles. As the thermometer rises, the need for revelation becomes more urgent; but when the pressure finally breaks, will the family recover too, along with the parched earth and melting pavements?

Escape the mounting heat in your own world by immersing yourself in Gretta's. You'll find the atmosphere engrossing – and the storm, when it comes, cathartic.