Dead heat, dyslexia and a strange disappearance

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

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.

Unguarded behaviour

The summer of 1976 was, famously, one of the hottest in Britain and Ireland since records began. “Strange weather,” writes O’Farrell, “brings out strange behaviour . . . It lays bare, it wears down their guard. They start behaving not unusually but unguardedly. They act not so much out of character but deep within it.”

She evokes the sense of the dead summer heat – the dried-out gardens, the impossibility of comfortable sleep, the flat, burning air, the aphids and other bugs that bash against the windows – so brilliantly that the heat starts to seem like a character in its own right.

What’s particularly impressive is that O’Farrell manages to convey this heavy atmosphere in such effortless prose: her writing is powerful but also elegant, lyrical and subtle.

O’Farrell’s work has always bridged the worlds of commercial and literary fiction. Her previous novel, The Hand That First Held Mine, was the winner of the Costa novel award; she has also received the Betty Trask and Somerset Maugham awards. But she’s a bona-fide bestseller and reading-group favourite as well, and Instructions for a Heatwave shows how meaningless those genre definitions can be.

Women writers have long been dismissed for writing about the domestic, but O’Farrell’s work reminds us that novels about the family can be profound and important, especially when the characters are as beautifully drawn as the Riordans.

O’Farrell is a great storyteller, and the mystery of Robert’s disappearance is compelling, but it’s the characters that make this book so good. She’s a compassionate writer, showing us each member of the family from a variety of viewpoints, ensuring that we understand and feel for every one of them even as they drive each other mad.

No one is demonised, not warm-hearted but infuriating Gretta, not Michael Francis’s increasingly distant wife, and not brittle, fragile Monica, who uses her conviction that she is the favourite daughter to hide her misery and insecurity.

Each character is so perfectly drawn that you feel you would recognise them in the street, but perhaps the most affecting is Aoife, the youngest of the family. Unlike the academic overachiever Michael Francis and the good girl Monica, Aoife has always been in trouble, failing at school, never holding down a job for long.

It becomes clear to the reader that she’s dyslexic, a condition rarely diagnosed in 1960s schools, but, to Aoife, her dyslexia is a dark mystery; she feels as though she has been cursed. Her inability to read is a terrible secret that affects everything in her life, and the weight of this burden is brilliantly conveyed.

But all of the Riordans will stay in your mind long after you finish this book. They’re funny, infuriating and impossible not to love. They feel like family.

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