Review: Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell
When their father pops out to the shops one morning during a fierce heatwave and fails to return, the three adult Riordan children are forced to return home and support their mother. They each bring their own problems and as the family searches for their patriarch, seething tensions and long buried secrets threaten to come to the surface.
Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel explores the depths of family relationships and wonders if we can ever truly know the people closest to us. Set in 1976, the Riordans are an Irish Catholic family who have raised their three children in London.
Robert Riordan is a mysterious character, who barely appears throughout the novel, despite being at the centre of the action thanks to his sudden disappearance during a blistering heatwave. Matriarch Gretta is neurotic and overbearing, always eager to meddle in her children’s lives and embarrass them.
Their children, Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife each exist in the bubble of their own problems: extra marital affairs, lost children and learning difficulties. It is the return of recalcitrant youngest daughter Aoife from her life in New York that forces the siblings to address their personal problems and work together to find out what has happened to their father.
The story shifts perspective between Gretta, Aoife, Monica and Michael Francis, examining the family unit through each character’s eyes. This is an effective way of highlighting the fluidity of a family history, how a story can change depending on who is telling it. Each character is very aware of their own troubles and the damage that has been done to them by their family, but they rarely stop to consider the pain they may have inflicted on someone else.
One of the biggest issues dealt with in the novel is Aoife’s struggle with dyslexia, although it is never named. The rest of the family recount how difficult she was as a child and her troublesome nature was worsened by the age gap between her and her older siblings. She was even held responsible for many of Gretta’s neuroses and physical troubles, which ultimately led to her escaping the family for America. It is only when we see life through Aoife’s eyes that we realise how isolated her problems with reading have made her and how ashamed she is of them. As this is the Seventies, a lack of understanding has plagued Aoife all her life. O’Farrell makes it easy to visualise dyslexia and how it affects Aoife, which makes her a much more sympathetic character.
For a kitchen sink type drama with a meandering plotline, this is a tightly written and engaging read. Throughout the book, O’Farrell deals with social issues that were prevalent at the time, which are perhaps not such a big deal in the modern world, such as the stigma surrounding divorce.
There are times when this can be a depressing read thanks to the overwhelming nature of the family’s problems, but they manage to communicate and work through certain things, allowing for a more hopeful, upbeat ending.