"THE HEAT, THE HEAT." So begins the astonishing new novel by Northern Irish writer Maggie O'Farrell. Following one sprawling family over four days of searing temperatures in 1976 London, Instructions for a Heatwave – O'Farrell's sixth novel – is perhaps a perfect book.
The action begins one morning when Gretta Riordan watches Robert, her husband of four decades, as he departs to buy a newspaper. In his absence, which stretches to one hour, then two, then 10, Gretta recalls how Robert always "likes to know where she is at all times, he frets if she leaves the house without telling him, gets edgy if she slips away without him seeing, and starts ringing the children to question them on her whereabouts." It used to drive her crazy, when they were first married, she says, when she longed "for a bit of invisibility, a bit of liberty." But in her later years, as an avuncular head of the sprawling and Catholic family — where no such freedom is available or even welcome— "she's used to it now."
Used to what? The position of women, the irascibility of children, the comfort of a routine, the quiet companionship of a steady but stoic husband, the memory of war and the specter of the Troubles — these are the pillars of Gretta’s life. Then, in a thunderclap, she learns Robert has withdrawn a great deal of money from their bank account. His absence is no accident — he meant to leave — so the Riordan clan assembles.
First there's Michael, the son, who is perhaps the saddest, most fully drawn character in a novel full of unforgettable players. In a searing introductory paragraph, we meet him on his way home elsewhere in London: past his youth, a man tormented by the heat, further tortured by the bare legs and thin fabric of all the young women who surround him, he is a man "hurrying home to a wife who will no longer look him in the eye, no longer seek his touch, a wife whose cool indifference has provoked in him such a slow-burning, low-level panic that he cannot sleep in his own bed, cannot sit easily in his own house."
This summer, houses aren't refuge; they trap the heat. As if O'Farrell had spent a decade collecting and fashioning the details of a family in crisis, she picks only the most pivotal, grinding moments when, with exhilarating devastation — again and again, with such control — she can twist the knife, carving deeper into what eventually might feel a little like our own bone. Michael, for example, buries his misery in any available ardor. Walking up to his house, "He loves the black-and-white-tiled front path, the orange-painted front door, with the lion-faced knocker and the blue glass insets. If he could, he would stretch himself skywards until he was big enough to embrace its red-gray bricks." Yet when his daughter bumps into his leg, it is the insistent head-butt of a small goat. When he regards this little girl, he's "staring at the creases in her neck, moving down the smooth pearlescent skin of her arms," and he considers eating her.
"Strange weather brings out strange behavior." Before he owned an unused stove and had a sink of dishes, kids wearing dirty clothes or leaving them in piles around the house, or a silent wife, Michael recalls the night he got a taste — at a dinner with his wife's family — of what it was like to eat with people unlike his own:
There was no shouting, no swearing, no people flouncing off the table, no silent brooding, no scramble for your fair share of the potatoes. No spoons were thrown, no one picked up the carving knife, held it to their throat and cried, Will I kill myself here and now?
The coming together of a Catholic family is more difficult and spookier in an era before cell phones, as typified by the near miss summoning by telephone of Aoife, Gretta and Robert's youngest daughter. Whimsical and dyslexic, an artist in temperament and with barely an ability to hold a normal job, she is like a lightning rod for the highest family's frequencies, summoning both their rare moments of tender patience and their tendency to assume the worst. She doesn't help by being a bit of a flake: As a young flower girl, for instance, she talked to herself all the way down the aisle and then lost the flowers. Growing up, "She had nightmares about creatures under the bed, about things tapping at the window, about a black shape behind a bathroom door." By the time of her father's disappearance, she's made it to New York — refuge, in a way, for those like her — and where she is working as a photographer's assistant. But she can't read.
What's there to know? War, violence, the things men can do, how women and men are being acted upon, the dull ache of those left behind, no one knowing what to do, no one knowing what's left to say. Robert is gone. Distant family arrives and departs. The kids fight, smoke cigarettes, and try to calm their mom. Eventually they all learn a little bit more.
Instructions for a Heatwave is never dull, never unconvincing, proceeding at a stately and crisp speed through a fully rendered world, grappling at all times and in an original way with the fascinating problems of our time, rushing head-long — and yet staggering almost drunkenly when necessary — towards a stirring and wondrous conclusion.
The Irish are good in a crisis. "They know what to do, what traditions must be observed," O'Farrell writes:
They bring food, casseroles, pies, they dole out tea. They know how to discuss bad news: in murmurs, with shakes of the head, their accents wrapping themselves around the syllables of misfortune.
No matter how bad it gets, they can also tell a damn good story.
Nathan Deuel recently moved to Los Angeles. His first book, a collection of essays, will be published by Dzanc in May 2014.