Instructions for a heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell

Instructions for a heatwave


On a hot July morning during the infamous English heatwave of 1976, Irishman Robert Riordan walks out of the North London home he shares with his wife Gretta and doesn’t come back. His disappearance brings his three children back home to support their mother.

There’s Michael Francis, father of two, a frustrated history teacher who lives nearby with his wife Claire, trying not to face the fact his marriage is crumbling. Michael Francis is the peacemaker, futilely trying to bring his feuding sisters together. There’s Monica, the put-upon middle child who can read her mother’s mind and won’t acknowledge her younger sister Aoife (pronounced as-fee, I think!) because of an unnamed wrong committed long ago. Monica has left her first husband and now lives in a Gloucestershire cottage she hates, with a man whose children don’t love her.

Maggie O’Farrell has written five previous novels, of which I’ve read and enjoyed two.

This is the story of the relationship between the three siblings and their mother, told through the prism of a family who still calls itself Irish but has been raised in England. Its strength is the characterisation of each child. I found Aoife, returned from New York where she has fled to escape the family, the most compelling. The story of her illiteracy was heartbreaking and the rift with her sister both believable and sad.

The siblings individual tales unfold as backstory over the hot days as they search for clues to their father’s whereabouts. Maggie O’Farrell’s style is of densely packed narrative detailing the minutae of past events, which for the most part works well, although at times I wished for the characters to be quiet. She also juggles four points of view without confusing or making them jar at all, the mark of a very experienced writer.

I loved her prose and lush attention to detail – the ‘slight mist has gathered on the underside of the cling film’, and Aoife’s wise sisterly response to Michael Francis’ marriage troubles:

‘A job something? A marriage something?’ Aoife asks. ‘A marriage something.’ ‘Ah.’ It is a sound so full of wisdom, so empty of judgement that he cannot help but tell her everything..’

There’s a scene on the Irish ferry that I particularly loved, where Monica notices her mother humming. She knows ‘that the humming signifies  Gretta mending her mood, much as a roofer might repair a faulty roof‘.

One quibble I had with the plot was that the resolution of each character’s troubles, and the central mystery, were arrived at a little too easily with no strong cause and effect. It left me feeling a bit dissatisfied with the ending. The heatwave, which English people alive then are still talking about, isn’t really used as a motif in the way it could be. The high temperatures (32 degrees for two weeks!) doesn’t seem to have affect the characters in any material way.

But aside from that, I really enjoyed the psychological exploration into the minds of these flawed but endearing characters.