“In one residential road in north London alone, a number of eccentricities are beginning to blossom in the heat like unusual orchids.”
The heatwave in question is home-grown and the one most British people over forty-five will never, ever forget or stop talking about. It was the summer when our green and pleasant land turned into something almost Sicilian – dried-up, rocky river beds, parched and cracked earth, universally brown lawns, stand-pipes on street corners and, in that distant age when air-conditioning was exclusively for America, a nation tormented by intolerably hot days and unbearably sweaty, stifling nights. It was 1976, the summer when the relentless sun seared the British from dawn to dusk, for week after week after week.
Maggie O’Farrell can’t possibly remember it. She was barely four, and anyway she grew up in Ireland where Atlantic breezes softened the brutal heat a little. But she writes beautifully and expressively about the heatwave, and it forms a compelling and necessary backdrop to her story. Necessary, because if heatwaves last long enough, people start to go a little crazy. And when this story begins, the temperature in London has not dropped below 90F (this was the pre-centigrade age) in ten straight days. And people begin to react in strange ways. In one residential road in north London alone, a number of eccentricities are beginning to blossom in the heat like unusual orchids. But the unlikeliest, most unexpected bloom of all is at number 14. Robert Riordan, recently retired after 30 years in the same job, cannot break the habit of leaving his house at 6.45 every morning. These days, it’s just to get the paper.
What makes this particular Thursday a little different is that he doesn’t come back.
“By teatime on the day Robert vanishes into thin air, his wife Gretta is convinced something is badly wrong. The disappearance is completely out of character.”
I was expecting twins in 1976 and the longer the heatwave lasted the more frightened I became. It was the hormones doing my thinking for me, obviously, but when the third month of my pregnancy coincided with the third month of cloudless, diamond-bright skies and Roman heat, I thought some sort of apocalypse had befallen us all. So I can see perfectly well why Maggie O’Farrell has chosen that extraordinary summer as the canvas on which to paint her story. We thought anything might happen.
By teatime on the day Robert vanishes into thin air, his wife Gretta is convinced something is badly wrong. The disappearance is completely out of character. It doesn’t help that she is having trouble getting hold of her three grown-up children. Middle child Monica is distracted by a crisis involving her stepdaughters’ cat; Aoife, the youngest, has done a vanishing act of her own and is un-contactable somewhere in New York. Gretta finally manages to telephone her eldest, Michael Francis, and the hunt to find his father finally begins to take shape.
Instructions for a Heatwave uses a tried and trusted gambit to grab our attention from the outset: someone goes missing. It’s a device much in vogue at the moment – think The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; The-Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared; The Unnamed… and like all these excellent novels, Maggie O’Farrell’s uses a disappearance to tease out the back stories of her characters.
You’ll probably have gathered from the Riordans’ Christian names that this is a family with Irish roots, and sure enough their search for Robert takes them back there, which is where an already absorbing story really takes off. As for what those instructions for a heatwave involve… we’ll let you find that out for yourselves.
Here are a selection of the reviews for Instructions For A Heatwave
“Consolidates her reputation as a writer who depicts relationships with piercing acuity in haunting, intense prose. O’Farrell is a deliciously insightful writer, observing the dynamics of relationships and astutely filleting them to the bone. Her sharp but humane eye dissects every form of human interaction.”
“O’Farrell is a great storyteller… All of the Riordans will stay in your mind long after you finish this book. They re funny, infuriating and impossible not to love. They feel like family.”
The Irish Times
“Here is an author whose depth and insight hover just below the surface of an apparently effortless lightness…There is a deliciousness to this novel, a warmth and readability that render it unputdownable and will surely make it a hit. She’s done it again”