Long, hot summers: The danger and drama of heatwaves in literature

Under a burning sun, forbidden desires are ignited and there is a slow melting of rules

We used to holiday some years at my uncle’s house in London; it was a house-swap initiative. It always seemed hotter and more claustrophobic than at home in Dublin. I have distinct memories of wandering the maze in Hampton Court Palace in a stupor of confused heat; waiting for the tube on a crowded, sticky platform, the rush of hot air wafting out of the dark tunnel. Afternoons were spent lying listless under an umbrella in the back garden, occasionally getting up to play with a ball before languishing once again in the shade. In photos I look small and uncomfortable, my mother generally trying to placate me with an ice pop. I could never sleep, which probably didn’t help the mood. The nights were humid, even the dark different, suffocating rather than empty, the posters of the popstars in the bedroom of my older cousins unfamiliar.

The soundtrack to those hot afternoons were the incessant flights to Heathrow overhead and the chirping of colourful birds in the wooden aviary at the end of the next-door neighbours’ garden. They were an elderly couple, very tanned and in shorts who were always gardening; they would occasionally pop their heads over the wall to say hello and tell us how nice my uncle and his family were. There was a slight sense of, not quite surprise, but embarrassed, shy relief in their tone. My mother, who was pretty chilled about our playing generally, would tend to give out if we were too loud in my uncle’s garden or were in danger of hitting a ball over the fence before explaining it wasn’t like at home. Even though I was young I knew what she meant; though I did wonder what the English children did for fun. You never saw any of them on the road, they didn’t seem to play outside.

The strange summer of my book begins with the red sand causing concern, people wondering what might happen if they breathe in the particles

It was during one of those hot summer visits that we awoke to a thick coating of reddish-brown sand all over the car and smearing the windows of the house. It had come from the Sahara. I became obsessed with this fact and asked numerous questions for the rest of the holiday. It seemed magical almost to think of dust from Africa travelling far and silently through the night. We spent the morning washing it away and I wondered had it reached Ireland. It felt like a sign, like something from the Bible even – red dust raining down on a hot land. In my memory, this holiday ends in wild electrical storms, the heat breaking as we packed up the car and drove the endless motorways back to Holyhead, the landscape turning green and damp again.


The red sand came back to me as I was writing my new novel about one hot summer, The Beauty of Impossible Things. It was one of the first things I wrote about, its arrival foreshadowing that of the handsome lodger Mr Bowen who comes to stay with a mother and daughter, creating friction in their relationship. Set during a heatwave in a small Irish seaside town, the strange summer of my book begins with the red sand causing concern, people wondering what might happen if they breathe in the particles, others imagining it to be a post-Chernobyl Russian plot of some sort. The growing heat of the summer only adding to the sense of paranoia and oddness, where "every step became a commitment you had to think seriously about, a negotiation with invisible forces that pressed against your body and demanded submission". The sand is followed by strange lights in the sky, people looking upwards and wondering what might be next to befall them.

Heatwaves are everywhere in literature when you start to look for them – they are almost a genre unto themselves. I only really know there was a heatwave in 1976 because of books like Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave and Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion. Books about a hot summer are a separate place and space for stories in a way, a cut-out from normal life, an opportunity for escape and reinvention. That’s the promise anyway because the unfolding will inevitably be darker. A burning sun offers a protagonist permission to be someone else and to do something they might otherwise not. There is a slow melting of the rules; people don’t think straight in the white heat of the day or of a humid night. They are often far from home and see themselves and others differently; there can be a sudden charge of hot, erotic possibility that will undoubtedly cross a boundary.

A character in a long, humid summer is at the mercy of controlling forces outside of themselves. There is an indifference to human comfort symbolised by the sun

"I fell in love on the beach," says the young actress Rosemary in the memorable opening scenes from F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. She is sunburnt, dazed, sleepy after spending a morning watching the glamorous, married Dick Diver frolicking on the sands of the Riviera. A desire is ignited, the consequences of which will play out across the novel. In Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, the ageing writer Aschenbach travels south to holiday in the humid, hot mists that shroud the lagoon where there is "a hateful sultriness in the streets" and "fever-breeding vapours" in the waters. He thinks about leaving, going somewhere that would be better for his health, but lost luggage and the draw of the beautiful boy on the beach conspire to keep him at the hotel. "He had three or four hours before the sun reached its height and the fearful climax of its power... three or four hours in which to watch Tadzio." The oppressive heat and haze mirror his own desires.

Controlling forces

A character in a long, humid summer is at the mercy of controlling forces outside of themselves. There is an indifference to human comfort symbolised by the sun, expressed most completely in Albert Camus' book The Outsider where the central character, Meursault, is plagued by painful heat and light throughout. The man Meursault murders on the Algerian beach that "pulsed with heat" is barely real, just a shimmer. Meursault himself feels his temples swelling under the glare of the sun, the veins bursting through the skin as "a shaft of light shot upwards" from the steel of the man's knife. Questions of responsibility, guilt, consequence, the "foreign" sun of Algeria are raised; human action and will is undermined, exposed in the pitiless power of searing heat.

Tensions, abandonment, desire all play out in The Beauty of Impossible Things. A summer of red sand and strange lights in the sky, a summer that lingers and after which people are different. And there is death too, because there has to be – summer’s end is part of any heatwave story. The weather shifts, but things do not go back to what they were before. In the gap between our memories of a hot summer and the actuality, literature steps in to exploit our desires and fears.

The Beauty of Impossible Things is Rachel Donohue’s new novel and available from all bookshops

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