Maggie O’Farrell is a highly reliable purveyor of magic. She delivers the goods time and time again, yet still manages to improve on a winning formula. Instructions for a Heatwave, her sixth novel, bears all the hallmarks of a classic O’Farrell novel, but its structural virtuosity is ever more impressive.
Set in the summer of 1976 with its record-breaking heatwave, this is both a wincingly accurate examination of family dynamics and a story that grips from the start.
The Riordans are a family in crisis, but they barely know it. The novel starts with Irish matriarch Gretta sweating her way through a July day that seems like any other except for the extraordinary heat that is choking London. Her husband Robert leaves to buy a newspaper, as he has every morning of his adult life – only this time, he doesn’t return. While Robert is busy performing his disappearing act, the novel’s focus turns to the couple’s three adult children.
Beneath seemingly ordinary lives, new tensions brew while old resentments leap to the surface the moment Robert’s action forces the family together. The oldest, Michael Francis, is now a wage slave in a teaching job, having been plunged into domestic responsibilities far earlier than he envisaged. Feminism has dawned, and his newly enlightened wife is suddenly alarming him by cropping her hair and taking an Open University degree. In the meantime, the favoured Riordan sibling, Monica, has moved out to the country to live with a man with daughters, step-motherhood in a rural setting an ill fit with her exacting nature. To make matters worse, she has lost her own baby in circumstances which only her younger sister has guessed.
This sister is Aoife, the prickly rebel of the family, who has walked out of the family to live in New York. Aoife’s undiagnosed dyslexia has informed her life, and she is barely managing to cling to a job and relationship when the call from home comes. Suddenly, all three warring children converge upon the family home in Kilburn, overheated with emotions in the hottest summer Britain has known. Something is bound to give.
Where has Robert gone? While family, neighbours and police theorise, the siblings’ lives unravel further. Battles erupt under the stern eye of the devout Gretta, deeply grieved that her children have abandoned the Catholic church. It is only in this middle section, where the family is in place but uncertain how to act, that the pace ever flags.
It slowly emerges that both Robert and Gretta have their own untold stories, which are at the root of this absence. Gretta knows far more than she is saying, and it is a family trip back to Ireland that reveals the whole truth. Suspense is created by O’Farrell’s remarkable handling of time. This chronological swirl – whole lives and generations seamlessly captured within the confines of one summer – is an O’Farrell technique, and one that is breathtakingly accomplished here. The reader is never confused while decades are travelled, often within the space of one sentence, injecting the simplest life story is with tension.
O’Farrell’s warmth, humanity and acute observations make this a novel to revel in and linger over.
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell is published by Tinder Press.
Joanna Briscoe’s latest novel, You, is published by Bloomsbury.