Culture Street

By Sophia Whitfield

In 1976, while London was in the grip of a heatwave, Gretta’s husband of thirty years, Robert Riordan, leaves the house to buy a newspaper and never returns. Gretta and Richard’s three grow up children, Monica, Michael Francis and Aoife return to their childhood home in an attempt to discover the truth behind their father’s disappearance.

Gretta is from an Irish family, the struggles that she endured when settling in London were, in her mind, extreme. She looks at her London born children, now in the grip of grief over their father, and wonders if they would ever understand a life such as hers.

O’Farrell weaves the perfect back story of the three grown up children through the current search for Robert Riordan, which takes the family from their London childhood home to the home of their summer holidays in Ireland.

Michael Francis, the only son,  is a history teacher, a job he hates, his marriage to Claire is crumbling and the only source of joy in his life are his two children, Hughie and Vita. His house is in constant turmoil since his wife embarked on a PhD and insists on opening up their home to her ‘study group’. It is, Michael Francis knows, Claire’s way of punishing him for his previous misdeeds.

Monica lives in Gloucestershire in a barn out of the way. She divorced her first husband, Joe, only to end up married to a man much older than her and stepmother to two young girls, neither of whom have taken to her. She is the favourite with her mother. She is the one Gretta does not want to bother with the disappearance of her father. While Gretta is adamant that Monica is far too busy, Michael Francis wonders what exactly it is that his sister does all day.

Aoife, the youngest, left her family behind three years ago for the bright lights of New York. Unable to endure the black sheep label continually laid at her door, she feels a release in her new life, far away from the Riordan clan. But with the news of her father’s untimely absence Aoife must make the journey back home, she must face the sister she parted with acrimoniously and come to terms with the family and their disappointment in her once more.

Finally the family come together. They agree that the best way is for Claire to fetch their mother and bring her to Michael Francis and Claire’s home. They will take Gretta by surprise, this should be enough for her to fill them in on the secret they feel sure she is withholding, the key behind her husband’s disappearance. But on arrival Monica sees her mother has dressed carefully. She is wearing her best dress and good shoes. Monica, who knows her mother better than any other, feels certain that they have a battle ahead of them. Gretta has no intention of giving up her secret.

This is O’Farrell at her best. She has written a stirring complex family drama. An adept storyteller, O’Farrell’s excellence lies in her ability to show how secrets left undisturbed for years, covered by an outward protection of everyday family life, can slowly cut away at the fabric of a person’s being. O’Farrell’s intimate portrait of the Riordan family in turmoil is both authentic and exquisite.

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