Maggie O’Farrell is instantly recognisable through her prose. Anybody who has read her before will know this; the detail of the world which she writes is captivating, as though suddenly you’re looking through a microscope while simultaneously developing x-ray vision. It takes a while to snap out of it after you’ve finished reading, actually (not that you have to snap out of it if you don’t want to!)
Instruction for a Heatwave is set in a boiling hot London town, in July 1976. The Riordan family are in the grip of the heat that “inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs.” It has not rained for months and Greta Riordan has chosen to make a loaf of bread, which she has made three times a week for the entirety of her married life. She isn’t about to let a heatwave get in her way. O’Farrell makes us feel the sticky warmth of the capital, traps us in the claustrophobia of the Riordan family home, then introduces a shocking turn of events; Robert Riordan, husband of Greta, father of Monica, Michael Francis and Aoife (my favourite character) – announces that he is going round the corner to buy a newspaper and never comes back.
O’Farrell gives us this – and lets the narrative sprawl forward, gathering complexity as it goes. Her characters are fascinating, from the stubborn Aoife who conceals her illiteracy from everybody around her, including her employer, to the sensitive Michael Francis (“you couldn’t shout at him or he got too upset. Something like a dead bird or a pony with a limp could set him off”) and the plotting of the novel grips you slowly, tangles your ankles before you’ve quite realised what it’s doing. The relationships between the siblings sometimes take centre stage – the slowly emerging bond between previously estranged sisters Aoife and Monica is heart-warming to see, and O’Farrell delicately explores the way the crisis of their father’s disappearance brings them together. Romantic relationships are artfully observed; a highlight moment is when the three siblings see Monica’s ex-lover with his new partner and duck into a florists to avoid being seen (“Monica cringes behind a spray of carnations, unable to look away, until the window is blank again…”) – one can imagine the sickening thud of recognition when their eyes alight on the very person no-one wants to see. Aoife’s budding relationship with Gabe is vividly drawn as well, their hesitant romance is a lovely sub-plot to the novel.
O’Farrell builds the tension in the tale until very nearly the end, unveiling the mystery at the heart of the story and surprising the reader; one of the characters knows more than they have let on for the entirety of the book. She is an absolute master of description, and while Instructions for A Heatwave for me is not quite as strong as After You’d Gone (her best, in my opinion) – it is undoubtedly a very accomplished piece of writing; one feels in incredibly safe hands and the prose is completely absorbing. The Riordan family will stay in your mind for a long time after you close the pages, and O’Farrell’s intricate voice will continue to follow you around for days – whispering details in your ear, pointing our the minutiae of life that is all there, should you only care to look.