Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

28th Feb 2013

instructions for a heatwave maggie o'farrell

Instructions for a Heatwave is the sixth novel by Costa Award-winning novelist and serial tugger of heart-strings, Maggie O’Farrell.

The tale of a family in crisis set in the famously scorching summer of 1976, this is a period piece with some outstanding features – one that shows a deft handling of O’Farrell’s stock devices of family mysteries, doomed relationships and passionate characters.

One morning respectable family man Robert Riodan walks to the shop to buy a newspaper – and doesn’t come back. Over the next three days, his disparate children return home to comfort their eccentric mother Gretta and help solve the mystery of where their normally dependable father could have gone.

The three siblings – the eldest, Michael Francis, who fears his newly liberated wife is thinking of leaving; reluctant stepmother Monica, who longs for a break from her husband’s obsession with antiques and his horrible children, and baby of the family Aoife, who ran away to New York to try and hide her obvious dyslexia – have not spoken properly since Monica and Aoife fell out several years previously.

The falling out, the reasons for Michael’s relationship breakdown and Monica’s true character are slowly unwrapped over the three days the book is set in, in typical O’Farrell style with much heartache and tension.

The highlight of the book is most definitely Gretta, the Irish mammy who pops pills, makes sandwiches and is endlessly forgiving of her eldest and condemning of her youngest daughters.

Gretta is a comic delight, and it is her emotional backstory on which the crux of the novel rests.  The 1976 setting is very subtly alluded to in period details and references to the constant heatwave that grips the country.

...this is elegant, well written prose by an accomplished novelist Those looking for the same emotional impact as The Hand That First Held Mine – the book that landed O’Farrell with the  Costa Novel Award and made everyone cry back in 2010 – won’t quite find it here, however.

Nor is it as thrilling as the remarkable, nightmarish Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which was chosen as a World Book Night title last year.

However, this is elegant, well written prose by an accomplished novelist who knows how to hide secrets well in her text and tease them out. Her fans shouldn’t miss it.

Insructions for a Heatwave is published in hardback by on 28 February, and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £18.99. An e-book edition is also available, priced at £9.99.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: Fans of family dramas and Irish cultural history.

Other recommended reading: Delve into O’Farrell’s excellent back-catalogue, especially The Hand That First Held Mine and The Vanishing of Esme Lennox.

Jess Haigh