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Sunshine and unhappiness.

March 27, 2013

Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction unearths the compelling in the everyday: she holds romantic and familial relationships up to the light of psychological scrutiny, examining the complications and repercussions of our connections with loved ones in clear and graceful prose.

O’Farrell’s last couple of novels, The Hand that First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, have traversed great chunks of 20th century history, from England’s old Edwardian empire to contemporary London. Her latest book, Instructions for a Heatwave, takes us back in time once more, although with much more concentrated focus: just three days during the sweltering English summer of 1976 (before you laugh at the words ‘English summer’ and ‘sweltering’ appearing in the same sentence, it’s true—the country was subject to record temperatures and a severe drought that year). Despite the brevity of the novel’s timeframe, it encapsulates the long and messy history of a family untethered by a mysterious disappearance.

It’s a stiflingly hot and dry morning in July 1976 when elderly Robert Riordan, husband, father and grandfather, walks out to buy the paper and doesn’t come back. His rather formidable Irish wife, Gretta, marshals her resources, phoning the police and summoning her three grown children: Michael Francis, a downtrodden history teacher trying to cope with his failing marriage; Monica, the unhappy middle child who refuses to acknowledge or accept her mistakes; and Aiofe, the troubled youngest of the three, whose bohemian existence as a photographer’s assistant in New York is overshadowed by a secret she won’t admit to anyone.

The stage is set for a fiery domestic drama: as the three siblings converge on the family home, each bringing their own long-fermented brew of prejudices and suspicions, recriminations and sour truths soon emerge. While the children quickly begin to doubt their mother’s adamant claim that she has no idea where Robert has gone, the crisis of his vanishing soon converges with longstanding family feuds and personal problems: after a perceived betrayal three years ago, Monica still refuses to speak to her sister; Michael Francis sifts through the mental wreckage of his relationship with his wife; Aiofe leaves her lover in New York in the wake of a potentially ruinous miscommunication.

Instructions for a Heatwave is driven by its characters—Robert’s disappearance is simply the pin in the family hand grenade of pent-up emotions. Ultimately, this is one of the novel’s (admittedly minor) weaknesses: Robert is such a peripheral figure, so overshadowed by the drama consuming his wife and children, that his disappearance begins to feel suspiciously like a plot device.

But O’Farrell’s other characters compensate for Robert’s weak presence. At the centre of the Riordans is Gretta, an overbearing mother figure with a penchant for ‘tent-size, flower-splotched frocks’ and hoarding useless household goods. She’s at once unassailably unique and painfully familiar—many families, no doubt, have had a Gretta at some stage in their lineage. There’s an element of caricature here, but it works; and because we come to know Gretta through her children—their decades of memories, projections, and frustrations—the novel’s central mystery, and its eventual resolution, is all the more intriguing and surprising.

If Gretta isn’t entirely sympathetic, neither are her offspring. Monica is perhaps the book’s most difficult character: deeply unhappy but unable to admit it, she is also the only one who knows how to best handle Gretta, ‘responding immediately and precisely to every mood, every demand’ her mother makes ‘like a sort of external heart valve’. Michael Francis and Aiofe might be easier figures to warm to, but they’re equally as damaged by some of the choices they’ve made and regretted. The dynamic between the three is particularly well rendered—O’Farrell brilliantly captures how readily we can revert to our childhood selves when we return home. Monica is once again the prim and sanctimonious favourite child; Aiofe flounces out of rooms and looks ‘for all the world like the sullen-faced teenager she once was’; Michael Francis is the ineffectual peacemaker.

In the background throughout all of this human drama is the weather: an oppressive, relentless heat that seems to make everyone behave slightly more strangely than usual. O’Farrell was inspired by her memories of the 1976 heatwave—it was, she reflects in the book’s afterword, the summer that ‘really did go on and on’, even causing the government  to appoint a Minister for Drought. But the novel progresses, it feels less as though the weather is causing the Riordans’ internal ructions than simply accelerating it; theirs was an implosion waiting to happen, and the unusual strength of England’s sun was just the nudge it needed.

It’s unfortunate that the book’s ending is something of a letdown—the resolution feels too neat and sudden, and jars with the perfectly pitched messy realism of all that precedes it. But Instructions for a Heatwave is still an accomplished exploration of family dynamics, and of how our relationships with parents and siblings can so strongly shape our lives, even without our conscious knowledge. Once again, O’Farrell’s demonstrates her flair at skimming the surface from ordinary lives to reveal the mysteries beneath.

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