Instructions for a Heatwave

Family secrets and lies. 

Patricia McLoughlin returns to familiarity of novelist Maggie O’Farrell’s fictional world……  

Instructions for a Heatwave

I had enjoyed Maggie O’Farrell’s earlier novel ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ so the family secrets and misunderstandings in ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ were soon recognisable.

Set in seventies London, the story of the Riordan family was familiar to someone like me. I grew  up among Irish Catholics and all the shadows and pretense that beset the likes of Gretta, the novel’s mother figure, whose husband Ronan, anglicised by him to Robert, walks off one day to buy a newspaper and doesn’t return.

There must be secrets, of course there must and, when the three Riordan siblings are thrown back into the nest by the crisis of dad’s disappearance, the threads begin to be unravelled.

Gretta’s happy family, like most, is not happy - nor happy to be back together.  Michael Francis, oh how that name places the family right in their time and place, the eldest, is a
schoolteacher by necessity not by choice.  His own marriage has hit the rocks and we wonder will it survive.

Then there is Monica, Gretta’s favourite – the epitome of the favoured child who has been done no favours by that status.  Is it because I was very much the unfavoured child that I wanted to slap her hard?  Monica, we discover, has killed one marriage for one that is much worse.

And how I identified with the youngest of the three, Aoife, the late, unwelcome Riordan arrival, beloved of big brother Michael Francis, always at the mercy of the coven that is Gretta and Monica. Poor Aoife, who is clearly on some serious dyslexic spectrum that prevents her ever being able to read but is clever enough to cover her illiteracy. Black sheep is always to be preferred to bloody stupid when you have this kind of mother and sister.

Gretta thinks she knows and understands her children, they think they know her and their father. But how wrong they all are.   This is 1976 remember, when divorce, dyslexia and babies born out of wedlock are not part of conventional London and certainly not the Irish ex-pat Catholic community, where the parish priest is still revered.

The title’s heat wave serves as metaphor for the rules, restrictions and lack of true sustenance in the story. Water shortages make taking a bath an outlawed pursuit, community needs outweighs individual desire.

O’Farrell places us in this parched time in the midst of a family we get to know intimately. The tea making, the rituals, the way everyone slots back into their childhood. Gretta whose voice is “unmistakably Galway, after all these years”.  Aoife, whose name is unpronounceable to anyone other than Gretta. Monica, ah Monica, what a judgmental bitch and Michael
Francis, oh please man up!

The only character we don’t get to know is the disappeared Ronan/Robert and what a story he would have brought.  Maybe one for O’Farrell’s next book?

Patricia McLoughlin