Review: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Published 29/01/2014 by damselwithadulcimer

Instructions for a Heatwave

I’ve never ready anything by Maggie O’Farrell before, but tend to find myself drawn to contemporary Irish literature.  O’Farrell was brought up in Wales and now lives in Scotland, but she draws on her Irish roots in introducing us to the family in Instructions for a Heatwave.

The Riordans live in London, where they have raised their three now adult children.  The novel begins very precisely on 15 July 1976 with the announcement of the Drought Act of that year.  The weather had remained exceptionally dry over the previous twelve months, but the above average temperatures that began in June of that year, prompted the government to introduce the Act referred to above, and to appoint a Minister for Drought, Denis Howell. 

The novel begins with Gretta, the family’s matriarch, making the same soda bread that she has prepared three times a week throughout her married life. The precision with which she bakes the family loaf echoes the precise elements of the Drought Act.  But on this July day her life will change: her husband Robert leaves to buy a newspaper and does not return. Her search for Robert means that she will have to get in touch with each of her children and enlist their help in tracing their father.

O’Farrell teases out the tensions between the siblings.  There is Michael Francis, a schoolteacher with marital problems who never completed his PhD; Monica, stepmother to Peter’s young daughters and harbouring a painful secret; and Aiofe, the youngest daughter (whose pregnancy has impacted on Gretta’s health) trying to conceal a skeleton within her own cupboard.  With all these buried secrets is it no wonder that Robert’s disappearance will lead to the uncovering of even more hidden truths? 

The need to for Gretta to contact her children forces her to confront the past and provides O’Farrell with the perfect opportunity to fill in the younger Riordans back stories.  She takes the siblings back to shared events in their childhoods and to episodes from their adult lives and enables us to build up their psychological backgrounds and to learn how their lives impact on the family and on each other.  We all come with our own baggage, and the Riordan children are no exception.  All three are forced to face the past and mend bridges, both within and without their immediate families.  Gretta too, pieces together what has happened to Robert and travels back to Ireland with her offspring and grandchildren to reveal a deeply buried truth. 

O’Farrell will seduce you with her prose, force you to turn the pages to reach the conclusion, and make you empathise with the problems and dilemmas encountered by the Riordans, a truly modern family with its fractures and reconciliations.

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