Set in North London at the height of the heatwave of 1976, ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ by Maggie O’Farrell tells the story of Gretta Riordan, a devout Irish Catholic whose husband Robert goes out as usual to buy a newspaper one morning except this time he never comes back. Their three grown-up children, Robert, Monica and Aoife return to help their mother but soon discover that Gretta may know more about his whereabouts than she first admits.
Having read O’Farrell’s other five novels last year including ‘The Hand That First Held Mine‘ which won the Costa Novel Award in 2010, I had high hopes for her latest novel and ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ is sure to be a hit with fans of her other work. As with her previous novels, the character development is excellent and Aoife’s struggle with dyslexia particularly stands out along with Michael’s crumbling relationship with Claire. The scenes are lightly sketched with only occasional references to period details and the story unravels quite slowly. Despite Robert’s disappearance being at the heart of the story, there is a noticeable lack of urgency in the Riordan’s search for him.
O’Farrell has explained in an interview that she believes extreme weather tends to bring out erratic behaviour in people thus the mirroring of rising tensions with rising temperatures in ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ is very deliberate. Secrets and lies are long-running themes in O’Farrell’s novels and they also feature at the heart of this story too with each of the Riordan’s concealing something significant from each other. However, although there is certainly tension throughout the novel, I was expecting more from the ending which was tied up a little bit too neatly given the turmoil the characters had been through.
‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ is a powerful story about dysfunctional family dynamics. I have to admit, the story didn’t quite grab me in the same way that ‘The Hand That First Held Mine’ and her first novel ‘After You’d Gone’ did. However, I’m looking forward to seeing what O’Farrell produces next as she really is a very talented novelist indeed.