Book review: Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s mastery of the dynamics of fiction and families draws us irresistibly to her denouement, writes David Robinson

Instructions For A Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, £18.99

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LONDON, summer of ’76. The tar is melting on the roads, the grass has long turned yellow and small fissures are opening up in the earth. Fires are starting everywhere. In the Riordan family, retired assistant bank manager Robert heads out of the back door to pick up a paper and never comes back. His wife Gretta claims at first not to have the faintest idea why he has gone.

As Maggie O’Farrell’s hugely enjoyable latest novel plunges towards its denouement, there is a scene in which her son, Michael Francis, wants to invite her round to his house for a family conference. The rest of the family has gathered there, waiting for Gretta to finally explain what has happened to their father and grandfather.

Secrets have always figured prominently in O’Farrell’s fiction, especially secrets concealed and congealed within families, or ones that slowly leak out across generations. Sometimes they might verge on the unlikely – indeed the one that Gretta is about to ­reveal to her family has very long odds against occurring in real life – but O’Farrell is such a fine novelist that she makes them sound entirely plausible.

One of the main reasons she is able to do so is the way in which she surrounds her characters with shoals of telling detail. In the set-up for that central scene, for example, Michael knows that his mother won’t want to come to his house for a family conference if he asks, but that she probably will if his wife Claire does, because Claire is English and Irish women of Gretta’s age and class could still, in those days, be intimidated by a posh English accent. Don’t tell her it’s a family conference, Michael tells Claire. Tell her you’re bringing her round for a cup of tea. (He knows how Gretta’s mind works: harsh truths should never be faced directly).

And so the Irish mammy makes her way round for the cup of tea, and she has put on her proper shoes too (that is a giveaway, Michael’s sister Monica realises, because Gretta is a martyr to swollen ankles at the best of times, let alone in the heat: her mother is no fool and realises she is being manipulated). And those shoes? They’re part of one of Michael’s earlier memories of his mother, as an embarrassed pupil dragged along to a parent teacher evenings:

“Why did his mother have to be so overweight, so eccentrically dressed, so loud, so uninhibited, so wild-haired, so keen to tell everyone her life story? He used to cringe at the sight of the tent-sized, flower-splotched frocks, run up in the evening on the sewing machine, the way her feet bulged over the straps of her shoes…”

But it isn’t just the vanished Robert Riordan who has his secrets. Everyone else in his family has too. There’s Michael’s brief affair with a fellow teacher, Monica’s divorce and inexplicable falling-out with her sister Aoife, and ­Aoife’s secret inability to read. Over and above all of these though is the massive mystery linking Gretta and her husband, for which the answers have to be found not in London in the sweltering summer of 1976 but on a remote Irish island.

None of those secrets would have any kind of pull without good characterisation, just as that in turn relies on O’Farrell’s sweep of thought-out detail. Gretta in particular is a magnificently realised creation – garrulous, unthinking, caring, loud, embarrassing (“Michael Francis, I will not have language in this house!” she shouts when she hears her son swearing in another room), maternal, pathetic, loving, hypocritical, inquisitive: an altogether credible mix of contradictions.

The rest of the family is no less well drawn. Michael gets his girlfriend Claire pregnant the very night her father asks him whether any of his family support the IRA (a little pool of ironies will form around that faux pas). Monica has seen her mother in extremis and as a result is close to her (“she’d got used to the invisible telegraph wire that ran between them: all day long messages passed between them without anyone else knowing”). Aoife heads to America as soon as she can to escape a family whose internal dynamics were oppressive even before the heatwave took hold.

And ultimately, this is the key, even more than any dusting of detail. O’Farrell doesn’t just get Gretta’s voice right, but she is spot-on about all these other members of her family too, and each of them talks in an entirely indiv­iduated way. Sounds easy? Try it yourself sometime. While you’re at it, see if you can learn that trick she also has of only telling the story in a way that deepens understanding of character – the way in which, for example, the summoning of Gretta to that family conference tells us more about at least three of the characters just in the way it is written.

Very occasionally – but too seldom to matter - there is a sentence that is writerly rather than necessary. That apart, on this form O’Farrell is hard to beat. Anyone looking for a British equivalent of Anne Tyler need look no further.

Twitter: @scotsmandavid