Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

I think when I began reading Instructions for a Heatwave that my expectations were too high. I’d anticipated what it would be about, going off the book blurb:

Robert Riordan tells his wife Gretta that he’s going round the corner to buy a newspaper. He doesn’t come back.

The search for Robert brings Gretta’s children – two estranged sisters and a brother on the brink of divorce – back home, each with different ideas as to where their father might have gone. None of them suspects that their mother might have an explanation that even now she cannot share.

I thought the novel would be mainly about Robert’s disappearance and I was wrong, for that isn’t discussed very much until the last quarter of the book. From the opening paragraphs, which I thought were wonderful (see this post) the novel is then concerned with Gretta  and her grown-up children – their childhood years, current situations and their relationships. All of which is fascinating in itself but I wanted to know about Robert. And Robert as a character is only seen through the others’ eyes. I think it was this aspect of the book that bothered me- Robert is not only missing, he is missing from the book itself.

Whilst I was reading this, Ian Rankin’s splendid book, Saints of the Shadow Bible came out and I abandoned Instructions for a Heatwave and lost myself in the Rebus/Fox crime mystery. Coming back to Maggie O’Farrell’s book, I realised that I was approaching it in the wrong way; it’s a character driven book, not plot driven. But, having said that the last quarter of the book, or so, moves much more quickly, things happen and the mystery of Robert’s disappearance is resolved.

The characterisation is very good, I could imagine all the people, and got infuriated at some of their behaviour. They’re not very likeable people but as I read on they did grow on me, especially Aoifa, who has undiagnosed dyslexia! But the heat that was definitely a presence in beginning of the book gets lost as the back story is developed. Whilst I found the mix of present and past tense a bit annoying it certainly clarified what were and what weren’t flashbacks.

I’m still in two minds about the book, for me it was both disappointing and compelling reading.  I would really like to re-read this book some time, now I know what to expect and think maybe I’d appreciate more. It’s shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award, along with Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (I have an unread copy), Unexpected Lessons in Love by Bernardine Bishop (who died in July), All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. I’d like to read all these! The winner will be announced on 6 January 2014.