Saturday, 10 August 2013


Summer of 1976. I was ten. The heat was cloying, suffocating. The grass bald, singed to brown. The water shortage endless. Tempers frayed and behaviour erratic.

It is on one such July morning that Robert Riordan goes out to buy a paper at 6.45am leaving his wife Gretta baking bread - a mutual ritual of some thirty years standing that is not about to be interrupted by 90 degree heat - and does not come back.

No-one knows where he is, "and the thing is, he's got the key to the shed...and the freezer's in the shed," Gretta tells various of her children. And so, with this knack for focussing on the minutae, rather than confront the altogether more alarming larger truth (that he has been gone eleven hours and took some cash out before he left), the catholic Irish matriarch summons her three children back from their adult lives to find him.

Instructions for a Heatwave is Maggie O'Farrell's sixth novel and, as with all her work, the mystery of Robert's vanishing takes second place to the family dynamics its unravelling throws into sharp relief. O'Farrell's families are always both riven and melded together by secrets and the Riordan's are no exception. Michael Francis, the brilliant elder brother who got his girlfriend 'into trouble' and consequently never fulfilled his promise. Monica, the middle child, the good girl, the coper, living life firmly in denial, for whom "her father's disappearance would forever be associated with the death of the cat." And Aoife, the youngest by ten years, the baby, wilful and wild, who ran as far as it was possible to run (to New York) taking her secret, that she is dyslexic and unable to read, with her. All find themselves umbilically dragged back to their childhood home and predetermined childhood roles.

Each has their own "private truth" and O'Farrell skilfully unravels them as their parents' uncoil in parallel over one long, torporous weekend. But this is not just an anatomy of a family, but a moment in time. 1976: when extreme weather resulted in extreme behaviour;  when feminism was young; when sex before marriage was still frowned on; when The Troubles were very much alive and life was far from easy for Irish families living in London; when generational chasms yawned.

O'Farrell is no stranger to recognition (her first novel, After You'd Gone won the Betty Trask, her third, The Distance Between Us, the Somerset Maugham, her fifth, The Hand That First Held Mine, the Costa Novel Award) but still she falls prey to the blight afflicting many female novelists: critics who disregard her on the grounds she writes 'women's fiction'. And yet her writing skewers the human relationship more acutely than most. More so, for instance, than the much-lauded Jonathan Franzen. I can only assume that pesky missing Y chromosome is to blame.

There is no greater purveyor of the simmering tensions that make up a family than Maggie O'Farrell, IMHO. Not one. Also, if we're judging a book by it's cover - and let's face it, we usually do - they don't come much more beautifully evocative than this.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell is published by Tinder Press on 28th February, £12.99. The paperback is released on 29th August.

(This blog was first published on Bazaar on Books blog, 27th February 2013.)

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