“Strange weather brings out strange behaviour. As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring about an exchange of electrons, the division of some compounds and the unification of others, so a heatwave will act upon people. It lays them bare, it wears down their guard. They start behaving not unusually but unguardedly. They act not so much out of character but deep within it.”
The summer of 1976 has become legendary – I was about eight (I know big age giveaway)and I’m pretty sure it was the year that I got badly burnt on a Devon beach and had to be slathered with camomile lotion by my mum and aunt. I had only read two Maggie O’Farrell novels previously, but knowing that her most recent novel was set during that extraordinary summer of high temperatures, drought and water shortages I really wanted to read it in a sort of fit of nostalgia.
London July 1976: and an Irish family are thrown into crisis; that will see them face the truths and realities of the past, uncover secrets and face up to the challenges of their own lives. As the capital swelters in temperatures seldom seen in England, gardens wilt and slowly turn brown, Gretta Riordan bakes bread. Her husband Robert, newly retired from the bank, tells her he is going for his newspaper, as he does every morning, only this time Robert doesn’t return.
“Gretta sits herself down at the table. Robert has arranged everything she needs: a plate, a knife, a bowl with a spoon, a pat of butter, a jar of jam. It is in such small acts of kindness that people know they are loved.”
Hours later a confused Gretta is telephoning two of her three adult children with confused questions about the shed key that their father has gone off with. Unravelling the tale eventually, Michael and Monica are propelled to act, going as far as to call their younger sister Aoife in New York, with whom Monica has become seriously estranged.
Michael Francis and Monica are both in the midst of their own domestic crises however, while Aoife in New York is trying to keep her secret from ruining her dream job, and her relationship with draft dodger Gabe. It’s the start of the long school summer holidays, and teacher Michael Francis is free for the summer, the one shadow on the horizon his troubled relationship with his wife Claire. Monica is living in the Gloucestershire countryside with her second husband, struggling to be accepted by her step-daughters who visit each weekend. On the day that Robert Riordan disappears, Michael Francis is annoyed again by his wife disappearing with her Open University friends, and Monica has to have her step-daughters cat put to sleep (I mention that incident particularly because I know people who detest animal deaths in books). Following Gretta’s telephone call Michael Francis rushes round to his mother’s house, followed a few hours later by Monica, and Aoife is soon on an aeroplane home.
“The house is full of ghosts for Gretta. If she looks quickly into the garden, she is sure she can see the ribcage of the old wooden climbing frame that Michael Francis fell off and broke his front tooth. She could go downstairs now and see the pegs in the hall full of school satchels, gym bags, Michael Francis’s rugby kit. She could turn a corner and find her son lying on his stomach on the landing, reading a comic, or baby Aoife hauling herself up the stairs, determined to join her siblings, or Monica learning to make scrambled eggs for the first time.”
In trying to discover where on earth Robert might have gone, and why, the family come together, Michael, Monica and Aoife finding themselves back under their mother’s roof again, facing all the strangeness that that entails. Michael confides his worries about his marriage to his younger sister Aoife, and Aoife and Monica begin the slow painful journey to reconciliation. With all of this going on, no one considers that Gretta might have more idea why Robert has disappeared than they realise. The search for Robert takes the family to Ireland, and back into the past littered with secrets.
Maggie O’ Farrell’s writing is really very good, the voices of her characters resonate strongly, and she injects a lovely mixture of humour, pathos and understanding into this story of a very memorable family. In a sense there isn’t an enormous amount of plot in Intructions for a Heatwave, but really this doesn’t matter, in fact I’m not overly fond of very plot driven novels, the lives of these characters, their problems, secrets and vulnerabilities drive this lovely novel along very nicely. Maggie O’ Farrell is excellent at character, she weaves their stories together in such a way that the reader is completely involved with them and needs nothing more. I gulped this novel down in a little over twenty four hours and finished it with a great big fat smile on my face.