Dead heat, dyslexia and a strange disappearance
Maggie O'Farrell: her new novel is powerful, elegant, lyrical and subtle
FICTION: Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell, Tinder Press, 339pp, £13.99
At the centre of Maggie O’Farrell’s superb new novel is an absence. Robert Riordan, a retired assistant bank manager in north London, has disappeared. On a sweltering Thursday morning in July 1976, he tells his wife, Gretta, that he’s going out to get a newspaper, and doesn’t come back.
The disappearance of this quiet, ordinary man brings together his fractured family. There’s garrulous, warm-hearted Gretta; her son Michael Francis, a history teacher whose own marriage seems to be slipping away from him; eldest daughter Monica, stuck in rural Gloucestershire with her new husband and two resentful stepchildren; and Aoife, the youngest, and always the most difficult, member of of the family.
When the bewildered Gretta tells them all about Robert’s disappearance, the three younger Riordans return to the family home, where they find themselves wondering if any of them ever really knew their father at all.
Novels about family mysteries are often depressingly predictable. Whenever I encounter a book about a family secret I run through a mental checklist of potential revelations: child abuse, consensual incest, adultery or secret baby – it’s almost always one of these.
But what is concealed and revealed in Instructions for a Heatwave is more ordinary, and more moving. There’s nothing gothic about the lives of the Riordans; there have been quarrels and estrangements in the family, but there is also a sense of security.
When we meet Monica and Aoife, they haven’t spoken for several years, but both of them are slightly amazed that it could have come to this, that a relationship that was always so secure could ever have come even temporarily undone.
The Riordans are, as their surname suggests, originally Irish, and Irishness is a central part of their identity, whether they like it or not. Robert was born in Ireland and moved to England as a child; Gretta grew up in rural Co Galway and as a young woman left for London, where she met and fell in love with Robert. Gretta has “always done her best to keep Ireland alive in her London-born children”, and is dismayed that her son isn’t doing the same with his own offspring.
O’Farrell, who was born in Coleraine and brought up in Wales and Scotland, depicts the family’s Irishness and matter-of-fact Catholicism without ever resorting to cliche. Gretta’s speech is always convincingly Irish; she’s also a devout Catholic and is horrified when her children flagrantly disobey the rules of the church, whether it’s by getting divorced or living in sin.
But she’s not a stereotypical zealot, and her rage doesn’t last for long. When the parish priest suggests that Aoife read Bible stories to the children at Sunday school – not a standard practice at Catholic churches here or in England – it feels slightly jarring because everything else feels so authentic.