Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
|Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: Exquisite writing, perfect evocation of place, characters you know and a great story. What more can you ask? Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: February 2013|
|Publisher: Tinder Press|
|External links: Author's website|
2013 Costa Novel Award shortlist
In London, in July 1976 it hadn't rained for months. Gardens - if you could call them that any longer - were thick with aphids and what water there was, which was to be consumed or used for washing, came from a standpipe. Robert Riordan told his wife, Gretta, that he was going round the corner to buy a newspaper. This was what he did every morning, but this time he didn't come back. The police weren't interested as the closer they looked the more it was obvious that there was an intention to disappear. Gretta turned to her three adult children for help. But how much help would they - could they - be?
Her eldest child, Michael Francis, had troubles of his own with a marriage which seemed to be falling apart about him, but he was the one who lived closest to his parents. Monica might have lived nearby too, but her first marriage to Joe had ended in divorce and she had remarried and moved to Gloucestershire. The farmhouse didn't feel like home, her stepdaughters resented her - and when she got the call from her brother she was trying to deal with the children's beloved cat who'd been badly injured. She was also estranged from her younger sister, Aoife who had lived in New York for years.
It's a story of secrets and misunderstandings as the children try to unravel the mystery of their father's disappearance. Monica believes that Aoife is responsible for the breakdown of her marriage to Joe - that there was 'something between them', she suggests, implying more and less than she thinks. But Aoife has a secret of her own and it's one she's been hiding from everyone since she was a child. What the children never consider though is that Gretta has secrets too - which even now she won't discuss with them.
Great stories are not uncommon, but this one has layer upon layer with the detail elegantly woven together to the point where you know the Riordans individually and as a family. They'll all stay with you long after you turn the final page. Even the 'bit' players - Robert Francis' children or Aoife's boyfriend in New York - are three dimensional and there's no one there just to make up the numbers. But what struck me most forcibly was the affection which O'Farrell has for her characters. There's sympathy for the occasionally foolish and rather vain Monica and a real sensitivity when dealing with Aoife's dyslexia.
The sense of place - be it Highbury or Galway in 1976, the nuances of the seventies or the heatwave, which is almost like a physical being - is so well done that I found myself going back over certain parts to see how it had been done. There's little in the way of exposition, but the places and the temperature are palpable. The writing is exquisite and it's a book to keep and return to. I did wonder if O'Farrell could match what she had achieved with The Hand That First Held Mine, but this is another book which firmly ticks all the right boxes. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
The themes are rather different but if this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop.
You can read more book reviews or buy Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell at Amazon.co.uk.
Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2013.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.