When I sit down to write a review of a book I tend to think over a few things I’d like to mention. Usually I will talk about the plot, the cast, the quality of writing and how it made me feel, but with Instructions for a Heatwave all I can do is talk about how Maggie O’Farrell’s writing swept me away into that scorching summer of 1976. It is all I have done since finishing the novel several weeks ago. All I can do is pester people on Twitter about the book and how O’Farrell wowed me with every word she wrote.
The book centres on a family in crisis during the legendary heatwave of July 1976. Robert Riordan gets up and tells his wife he is heading out to buy a newspaper… he doesn’t return. Suddenly this small and connected Irish family are thrown into disarray and must be brought together to solve why Robert left suddenly but also they must work through their own differences with each other. Each member of the family holds a problem within them – Michael Francis is insecure and trapped in his own frustrations with life. Monica has made many poor decisions and begrudges the life she leads and Aoife had to run away to New York to escape what she thought she would become.
Each member of the small cast is written with such care and attention that they appear to spring to life from the page. You can hear the accents; feel the tension in the air and the trepidation in their approach to each other. We can see that this is not a perfect family and that only makes them more endearing. The mother, Gretta, is the wonderful head of the family is her brusque Irish demeanour and finds herself as not only the centre of the emotion, but also the humour. O’Farrell has created an ensemble that feels familiar, even if you weren’t brought up within the same circumstance.
The entire novel is a comfort to read through both language and compulsion. I found I wanted to pick it up not only to reach a conclusion but to be immersed in the authors ideas of this oppressive London. And the use of the temperature is a constant source of pressure throughout. We can relate to how stifling it can be in such heatwaves and having to deal with anything in such situations can feel unbearable. This is how O’Farrell ratchets up the tension and leaves you hanging on her every word. The conclusion is subtle on its own but as part of such a work, it is devastating.
By the end of the book, I was disappointed that it had to end. I had fallen in love with these characters, their nuances and most of all their weaknesses. I want more from Maggie, I wanted much more from the Riordan family. When the final cover closed I felt sparse and empty (soon solved by buying more of O’Farrells books). I feel as if the only person with the skill to put my feelings about this book into words would be a master like O’Farrell herself. A family drama that is simply stunning for its simplicity of plot and depth of language.
Published by Headline. This book was kindly sent from the publisher.