Kate Riorden’s The Heatwave combines an atmosphere of chilly, all-encompassing doom with stock kid-as-sociopath storytelling, leading to a marginally disappointing and ultimately average thriller.
Sylvie lives alone in London with her young daughter, asthmatic and anxious Emma. Their lives are as normal as can be in spite of the trauma they’ve both been through when suddenly she’s called home to La Rêverie, the ancestral family manse in Provence, which has suffered damage in a wildfire and continues to crumble around their ankles.
Being back in La Rêverie is bad for Sylvie. For there she was, for a brief time, happy, with Emma’s father, Greg. But Sylvie and Greg also had another daughter, Elodie, a tempestuous whirlwind of a girl who strained Sylvie’s nerves to no end, rebelling only against her, seemingly born with a malevolent hatred in her breast. Elodie who – according to her mother – was a diagnosed sociopath who dreamed of murder and tortured animals. Elodie, who – according to Sylvie – died before her fourteenth birthday.
Emma has no memory and little knowledge of Elodie – Sylvie has rarely spoken of her other daughter But, as the fires continue to rage and Sylvie’s love-hate obsession with Elodie continues to burn, the truth about Elodie threatens to emerge and ruin their lives.
The Heatwave’s biggest problem is its predictability. Sylvie is something of an unreliable narrator, haunted by Elodie’s memory to the point where her presence becomes a too-real third party in the house. The problem is that Elodie is just a big ball of cruelty, and the sociopathy she wreaks upon her family isn’t interesting or unique in any way, which makes it hard for the reader to find her as fascinating/compelling as Sylvie obviously does. (At the very least she could attempt murder uniquely instead of in the manner of every female sociopath in the last hundred or so suspense novels in existence (drownings are so passé)). The most sympathetic character within range is Emma by a long shot, and she feels more like a victim for too much of the book. The rest of the characters – from a stock love interest for Sylvie to the classic sympathetic or rivalrous neighbors – all fall into place and echo better books.
On the other hand, the tension and atmosphere – and the feeling of life in Provence – which is woven within the prose stands out above the ordinary. The Heatwave is easy to sink into when it’s waxing hypnotic about life in Provence, and it’s good at establishing its world of burning hills and beautiful pools, of forests that are deep and malevolent and filled with monsters.
For atmosphere alone – and the decent though predictable twist at the end of its pages – The Heatwave is a decently readable diversion, and I enjoyed the second person narrative structure for its uniqueness and its way of drawing the reader into the story – one truly feels as if they’re being spoken to, lulled along into a horrible fairytale. But ultimately, it’s not quite as exciting as it should be, and that’s the book’s ultimate tragedy.