I don’t know about other families, but in mine, it was quite normal to reminisce about the ins and outs of the 1976 drought for some years after it happened. I was not born until the rather wetter summer of 1982 and even I grew up well acquainted with how the grass went brown and the lawn cratered and an uncle slept in the garden after a family party. Of course, this was extreme weather, British style, which is to say that actually, it wasn’t that bad. But there is something about elemental oddness that puts people on edge and makes them remember things that would otherwise be forgotten. It is this truth that Maggie O’Farrell puts forward in her now Costa short-listed novel Instructions for a Heatwave.
The characters of the novel are members of the Riordan family, Irish, Catholic and living in London without enough water. The man of the house, Robert Riordan, quiet, unassuming and recently retired, has gone out to buy a newspaper and not returned. This inexplicable disappearance fetches back his 3 adult children to their mother Gretta. It is an event which ricochets through their relationships, unravelling loyalties, loves and misapprehensions left, right and centre.
The Rhiodan children cut very different figures on the stage of parental and cultural expectation. The eldest, Michael Francis is a frustrated academic, forced into school teaching by the pregnancy of the English girlfriend who he was forced to marry and who was in turn, forced by motherhood into giving up her degree. His family has been formed and the relationships set in a defensive pose, with nobody being quite the person they want to be. Monica, who in my view was by far the most irritating character in the book, is the Rhiordan’s second child and has always been the favourite and the most overtly loyal. She has in her closet, a morbid fear of childbirth, a failed marriage and a limping attempt at a second marriage and step family. The baby and rebel of the family is Aoife, who is a charming and perceptive outsider whose significant mind is almost wholly taken up hiding her illiteracy from all who know her.
I am not sure that the family atmosphere of the Irish diaspora which O’Farrell captures really exists any more. This was a world in which “no Irish” signs were easily remembered and in which to be Irish and in England was to be thought of as something less than the English. I am not sure that the grandchildren of Robert and Gretta would really be aware of this now. Such casual prejudice has largely been transferred to other groups and many Irish names and indications now go unnoticed by the English. But in 1976 things were different. Thus Gretta clings to her Irishness, and uses it as an anchor for her identity. Her grown up children all reject it to greater and lesser degrees, but are bound to it nonetheless.
The reality of family life is that all parties are hiding things from those they love, in some cases major facts and in some cases simply their state of mind. Artificiality has become a way of life and the consequence of this secret keeping is that relationships have suffered and individuals have been isolated. Here we have a classic Maggie O’Farrell tale of family revelation and the redemptive power of the truth. Although I will not reveal it here, all is not too bad in the end.