Instructions for a Heatwave, By Maggie O'Farrell

A summer of drought, a sudden flight – and a family thirsty for answers

Stacey Bartlett
Friday 08 March 2013 20:00
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The heatwave is a common device in literature used to intensify atmospheres and make idle minds run overtime. Long afternoons make simmering frustrations boil over – the heatwave in Ian McEwan's Atonement has particularly dramatic consequences, and the hot day is responsible for Alice's lethargy and subsequent adventures in Alice in Wonderland. Heatwaves are a ticking time-bomb, the charged pause between thunder and lightning.

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Instructions for a Heatwave takes place over four days in July 1976. The heat of that famously dry summer "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". Gretta and Robert Riordan's three children – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife – have long grown up and settled down elsewhere, and the middle-aged Irish expats live a contented life in a North London suburb. But one Thursday morning, Robert sets out the bread, butter and jam for his wife, leaves to get the daily paper, and doesn't come back.

Maggie O'Farrell specialises in dysfunctional families, and the Riordans have their fair share of troubles. Each of the children's histories is superbly woven into their adult lives to create a neat case of emotional baggage all bring back to their parents' house. Michael Francis has marital issues; Monica welcomes a break from playing step-mother to her partner's hateful daughters; and Aoife, the youngest child who has travelled the furthest, leaves her life in New York assisting a famous photographer along with a shoebox full of letters that she can't read and bills she can't understand.

A significant amount of character backstory is needed to accompany a novel that takes place over four days, which means the plot moves at a suitably lazy afternoon pace. But Gretta and Robert clearly have something to hide – from each other, and from their children. Housebound during the heatwave, the offspring deconstruct their parents' marriage to reveal some clues as to where their father might have gone. Their investigative powers are met with Gretta's hand-wringing rebuttals, and the old tensions between Monica and Aoife uproot some nasty surprises.

In her sixth novel, O'Farrell skillfully captures the family life of immigrant parents with British children. Traditions rubs along with modernity and the Riordan children realise they don't have an inkling of the lives their parents led in Ireland. Instructions for a Heatwave's uncomfortable truth is that secrets can evaporate into the walls of a house and sit there quietly for years – and that anybody can disappear if they really want to.

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