Instructions For a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

by Amy Pirt


Instructions For a Heatwave was the Waterstones Book of the Month for March and is the first Maggie O’Farrell novel which I have read. I am certain it won’t be the last.

It is 1976 and the hottest summer since records began: ‘it inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome’. Gretta Riordan, Irish-born, London-living, is baking soda bread, and Robert Riordan, her restless husband, is going to get a newspaper. He doesn’t return.

The greatest achievement of Instructions For a Heatwave is not its plot, despite the skill therein, but rather its deft portrayal of a family breakdown (or several family breakdowns, perhaps). For there are huge secrets within the Riordan clan: Michael Francis’s infidelity, the effect of Aoife in utero on Gretta, and Aoife’s dyslexia.

What I enjoyed the most about the novel, however, was O’Farrell’s portrayals of Ireland, Irishness and attitudes to the Irish. Take Michael Francis’s future father in law’s questions:

‘From Northern Ireland? Or southern Ireland?’

‘Ah. But you’re not IRA, are you?’

I have taken a long time to read this book. But then, it is no page turner, like Gone Girl. Rather, it is a deliciously long yet rewarding walk, with a glittering view over the sea to savour at the end. It will stay with me a long time.