The English writer Maggie O'Farrell is a favorite of mine. She has a tender voice, lyrical and descriptive. Her characters are real, in fact, we think of them as people we know. Vivid, flawed, heartfelt. In this novel, members of an Irish family return in the heat of a dry summer to their mother's home when they discover their father has disappeared without a word. Parched, you might say, for connections, and understanding.
I encountered O'Farrell first years ago with "After You'd Gone" a magical little novel that kept you hanging. After that, I read "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" which also focused on siblings and was surprisingly fascinating, followed by my favorite O'Farrell, "The Hand that First Held Mine." That novel subtly and incisively captured the essence of loss and trauma.
Last year she published "Instructions for a Heatwave" which garnered a few modest reviews. I finally got around to it and yes, it is not as compelling as the others, but still on the upper rung of storytelling. O'Farrell speaks in a lilting tongue here, befitting the setting. I found myself often stopping to re-read a passage because she is so insightful.
My critique would be only that the plot line too easily comes together. Few surprises, and these not terribly profound. Touching, but not earth-shattering, which they don't always need to be. The nuanced novel is a joy in the hands of a nuanced writer. O'Farrell traffics in tortures of the heart and this story centers on the struggles created by simple misunderstandings. Although when it comes to family dynamics, is anything simple?
Most impressive to me was the one character [oddly named Aoife as in Eve, Irish style] one of the three siblings whose relationship dominate the tale. She is an undiagnosed dyslexic. O'Farrell deftly depicts the way words formed mazes in her mind, through which she found it hard to find her way. And, like the amazing "The Reader" this character too would rather struggle through life than confess her despair, preferring to accept the opinions of family and friends that she was stupid, disorganized and belligerent, despite her obviously elevated intellect. In fact, I might have preferred the novel to center on this character and her difficulties, which was the best part.
If you are looking for a touching but not hyper-sentimental tale with interesting characters and story line, one that once again reveals the fault lines in families, and in a repressive culture, "Instructions for a Heatwave" is good reading.