Instructions for a Heatwave is the sixth novel by acclaimed Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. In it, she presents an ‘intimate portrait of a family in crisis’. This crisis is found not only in her characters, but in the setting too, taking part as it does during the London heatwave of July 1976. As one might expect, this heat is like a character throughout the book, its presence stifling: ‘The heat, the heat… It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome; it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs’.
The novel opens with Irish housewife Gretta, one of the main characters in the book and without whom the story would not be able to unfold in quite the way it does. She is described as ‘so overweight, so eccentrically dressed, so loud, so uninhibited, so wild-haired, so keen to tell everyone her life story’. At the beginning of the book, headstrong Gretta is baking bread in the fierce heat: ‘She is in her nightdress, hair still wound into curlers… She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that’. Gretta and her quiet husband Robert Riordan have been married for over thirty years, and are the parents of a son and two daughters – Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife, all of whom are off in the big wide world, living their own lives. The relationship of their parents is a happy one, filled with ‘small acts of kindness that [make] people know they are loved’.
On the pivotal July morning in which the novel opens, London has been in the midst of a heatwave for several days. The citizens are listless and lethargic, and even the smallest acts outside seem like heroic feats. Robert goes out to buy the newspaper at the exact time that he always does, and fails to return. The three children are drafted in from their various locations – Michael Francis in another part of London, Monica in Gloucestershire, and Aoife in New York City – to help find their father. Gretta’s relationship with each of her children is fractured in some way. She dislikes her son’s Englishness, she loathes the space which has opened up between her and her favourite daughter Monica, and she dislikes the way in which Aoife fled to the United States and ‘Never called. Never wrote’.
Each of these characters, too, has a fractured life in some way. Michael’s marriage has hit a definite rough patch; he is a man ‘hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house’. Monica is living in a lonely farmhouse with her new husband, whose stepdaughters go out of their way to make life difficult for her: ‘Peter came with a ready-made family, with spare children, she’d hoped she might slot into their lives almost as if they were her own’. Aoife is almost living a hand to mouth existence and is struggling with the fact that, having been held back so much at school, she cannot read.
The author’s descriptions of Michael Francis’ young children particularly are imaginative and perceptive: ‘Hughie is a sprite, a light, reedy being, his too-long hair flying out behind him, diaphanous, an Ariel, a creature of the air, whereas Vita is more of a soil-dwelling animal. A badger, she reminds him [Michael Francis] of, perhaps, or a fox’. Throughout, O’Farrell’s writing style is polished, and her third person narrative voice has been deftly crafted. The short time period in which the novel takes place too adds in its own way to the story.
O’Farrell clearly knows her characters incredibly well. She feeds in lots of details about each of them as the book goes on, and she makes it clear that in Instructions for a Heatwave, nothing is quite what it seems. Secrets lie behind every closed door, and once happy hearts seem as lifeless as the scorched grass in the city. The detritus of family life has built up over time, leaving behind a trail of broken individuals, who use the horrid situation they find themselves in to try and build bridges with one another.