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By Kate Riordan
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Elodie was beautiful. Elodie was smart. Elodie was manipulative. Elodie is dead.
When Sylvie Durand receives a letter calling her back to her crumbling family home in the South of France, she knows she has to go. In the middle of a sweltering 1990's summer marked by unusual fires across the countryside, she returns to La Reverie with her youngest daughter Emma in tow, ignoring the deep sense of dread she feels for this place she's long tried to forget.
As memories of the events that shattered their family a decade earlier threaten to come to the surface, Sylvie struggles to shield Emma from the truth of what really happened all those years ago. In every corner of the house, Sylvie can't escape the specter of Elodie, her first child. Elodie, born amid the '68 Paris riots with one blue eye and one brown, and mysteriously dead by fourteen. Elodie, who reminded the small village of one those Manson girls. Elodie who knew exactly how to get what she wanted. As the fires creep towards the villa, it's clear to Sylvie that something isn't quite right at La Reverie . . . And there is a much greater threat closer to home.
Rich in unforgettable characters, The Heatwave alternates between the past and present, grappling with what it means to love and fear a child in equal measure. With the lush landscape and nostalgia of a heady vacation read, Kate Riordan has woven a gripping page-turner with gorgeous prose that turns the idea of a summer novel on its head.
The letter is there when I get home from work. I know it’s French immediately. The handwritten number 7 in the postcode gives it away: crossed and curled, so un-English. La Rêverie is finally calling me back.
The summer sun is relentless in the place I come from. There, the hard earth absorbs all the heat it can, leaving the rest to hang in the air, heavy as swaddling. On the hottest nights, I would lie awake in damp sheets, the windows and shutters flung back, and listen to the cicadas whirring and the frogs belching and the thunder rolling around the hills, like marbles in a bowl.
I didn’t miss France when we left. I was grateful the two of us could hide away in north London, safe among the streets of red-brick houses and trees that lift the paving stones. I don’t even mind that I’ve become a permanent foreigner, despite my excellent English, the accent always giving me away. “Oh, you’re French,” people say, smiling. “All that lovely wine and cheese.”
I think in English now. I even dream in my adopted language. But as I put down the letter and begin to digest what it means, I do so in my native tongue. It happens automatically—the old language so easy to inhabit that it’s like a shirt you no longer want but still fits better than anything else.
At the telephone in the hall, I open the address book to G. I still don’t know your father’s number in Paris by heart.
His accent is good, better than when we were still married, when I would tease him, saying, “Greg, it’s not ‘wee.’ You have to move your mouth with French. Use your lips.”
“I’ll use my lips, all right,” he always said, pantomime-raucously, and then he would kiss me. We were forever kissing in the early days. Kissing and laughing. We always spoke English together, despite living in France—and not just because my grasp of his language was so much surer than his of mine, but because it balanced things, somehow. A house full of English with the whole of France outside.
“Oh, Sylvie, it’s you,” he says. His voice, low and slightly hoarse, is still capable of piercing the softest parts of me. “Is Emma all right?”
“Emma is fine.”
I can picture him as if he’s standing in front of me, the hand that isn’t holding the phone turning over a crumpled pack of Gitanes, a soft chambray shirt, ironed by someone else now, impatience in the deep groove between his eyebrows.
I swallow, wishing I’d thought about what I would say before I’d rung. “Look, I need you to take Emma for a few days, maybe a week.”
“We talked about the end of August, didn’t we?”
“Yes, but I need you to have her now. As soon as possible.”
“What? Why? Where are you going? The school year hasn’t even ended yet, has it?”
I can see the letter on the table from where I’m standing, its sharp white corners.
“It ends on Friday. She’ll only miss a few days. I can drop her off in Paris on my way south.”
“South? Sylvie, what’s going on?”
“Something happened at the house. The solicitor wrote to me about it. There was—there’s been some damage.”
“What sort of damage?”
“A small fire. It was probably accidental, but it’s going to cost. The house has been standing empty for ten years now and this kind of thing is only going to crop up more. It needs to be sold and I have to go there in person, sign some papers. You know how it is in France, how complicated they make these things.”
“Well, we’d love to see Emma, of course. But I don’t think it’ll work.”
“You know I don’t want her going back there. Besides, I’ll be stuck with the solicitors half the time.”
“Sylvie, I’ve got a buying trip and Nicole is taking the boys to her mother’s in Normandy. It’s all arranged.”
I don’t reply. I had known, really, that he would say no. In the silence that follows, both of us lost in our own thoughts, the line hums between us.
“So you’re finally going back,” he says eventually, and takes a long drag of his cigarette.
Though it’s early when we leave the flat and begin the journey south to Dover, the day is almost gone by the time we drive off the ferry in Calais, the men waving us impatiently down the ramp, neon jackets garish against the sky that’s always gray and brooding here. You’re quiet beside me, but a mounting excitement is leaking out of you, like the noise from the Discman earphones you’re hardly without these days.
I follow the car in front of us into the right-hand lane, blue motorway signs flashing overhead. As we drive on, deeper and deeper into the darkening mass of France, the voice in my head that hasn’t paused since I got the letter grows louder, more insistent. I find I’m gripping the wheel so tightly that it’s slippery with sweat.
I glance at the dashboard clock. It’s late. Up ahead, the sign for a budget hotel glows out of the dark. I let out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding and pull off the road. In the fluorescent-lit reception area, silent except for the hum of a vending machine, it doesn’t feel like the country I left behind—the sleepy France of my childhood or the place where we were once a normal family. No, that’s disingenuous. Whatever we were, we were never normal, not even from the start.
In the morning, I pour you a second cup of chocolat chaud in the breakfast room and gesture to the packets of dry biscottes piled high on the buffet table, the round pats of pale Normandy butter.
“Have some more, darling,” I entreat, smiling to make up for the strain in my voice. “It’ll be a long day.”
But you’re much hungrier for the scene’s foreignness than your breakfast: not just the deep bowls of coffee and thin slices of cheese layered in ripped-open croissants but the children with their perfect table manners, their brightly colored spectacles.
You lean forward and drop your voice conspiratorially: “There’s a man over there who keeps looking at you.”
“No, there isn’t.” But my eyes are already searching the room because it’s impossible not to.
You’re grinning, which makes me smile too.
“He just did it again,” you say. “He’s so obvious. Over by the window in the green shirt. He’s on his own. He’s probably divorced too. You should go and say bonjour.”
“For God’s sake, Emma!” though I’m laughing now.
“You look really good for your age, Mum.”
“Ah, I love a backhanded compliment.”
You roll your eyes. “No, but you are. You’re really pretty. Men always look at you. That Nick who asked you out at work was basically obsessed with you.”
I spot my admirer then, our eyes meeting for an instant. There’s something of Greg about him: the way he holds his knife and the unconscious flick of his head because his fringe is too long. I used to cut Greg’s hair for him when we were married, newspaper spread under the stool in the kitchen.
I stand, my chair scraping on the hard floor. One of the children has begun to sing-song, “Maman! Maman!” and I don’t know how much longer I can stand it.
We follow the slower, narrower D roads after Lyon, sunlight slanting through long lines of poplars. I’d forgotten the meticulous commitment to signposting every minor village and hamlet, not just when you enter but when you leave too, the name slashed through with red. The countryside around us feels endless after London: age-softened farmhouses and the occasional shuttered restaurant marooned at the margins of vast fields. I glance over at you, drinking it all in. It must be so exotic to you, yet it’s where you spent your first four years.
The sun climbs as we drive, the car growing steadily hotter. You fiddle with the radio, snorting with derision at the terrible French pop songs but stopping when you find a station playing Edith Piaf. I wind down the window and, in the first blast of air, I smell the past. It’s indescribable. The closest I can get to it is hot stone, lavender, and a distant note of something like panic.
Half a mile from the house, we almost get lost, which seems absurd given that I’ve lived more of my life in this part of the world than any other. A petrol station has appeared on a corner once occupied by a peach stall we used to stop at, and this throws me enough to miss first the turn and then the sign. It’s only when we’re suddenly in the heart of the old village—the dappled shade of the plane trees, the café’s round silver tables, and the dusty awning of the boulangerie all utterly unchanged—that I realize where we are.
I turn the car around with a screech, not yet ready to be seen by anyone who might know me, and soon we’re bumping down the dirt road to La Rêverie.
Quite abruptly, more quickly than is comfortable, we reach the rutted track that winds down to the ramshackle barn where logs for winter fires were stored, along with the rusting rollers and ancient farm tools my father pointlessly hoarded. I don’t look at it, driving round to the front of the house instead.
I turn off the engine. You’re silent next to me. I reach out to tuck a loose strand of hair behind your ear: English mouse and a little ragged at the ends because you’re always trying to grow it longer. You’ve made me promise you can have it streaked when you turn sixteen. I want it blonder, you’ve been saying all spring. Not this nothingy color.
“Mum, I don’t think I remember this,” you say now, your voice high and young. “I thought I did, when we turned off, but…”
“It might come back,” I say, hoping it won’t, that everything from that time has been permanently erased. You were so young when we left, and I tell myself, as I have so many times, that that’s why you’ve apparently forgotten everything.
We get out and the ticking under the car’s bonnet echoes the cicadas that fill the bushes around us. Their cries will get faster and more frenzied as the day wears on, the sun steadily climbing, the temperature rising. “Écoute, chérie. Écoute les cigales,” my mother used to say when I was little, in a bid to stop me running outside and getting overheated. They’ll tell you if it’s too hot to go out today. I’d forgotten that.
The house is exactly as a foreigner would picture a maison de maître in the South of France: thick gray stone and a steeply pitched roof, tall symmetrical windows concealed by mauve-blue shutters, the paint powdery with age and the ferocity of the sun. The garden that surrounds it is walled at the front and topped with railings. I push back the metal gate, whose letter box still bears my maiden name in faded letters, and it swings in easily, as if used every day.
Inside, the bougainvillea spills over the grass and the lavender bushes have gone woody and sparse, but it isn’t as unkempt as I imagined a garden abandoned for a decade would be. It still looks like the place I remember. Weeds grow up through the path to the door, but the dense column of cypress that casts one side of the house into deep shadow always needed cutting back, even in my earliest memories. I glance up at the farthest bedroom window, the one most obscured by the cypress’s deep shade, and see that one of the shutters has slipped its hinges.
By my side, you crackle with something: anticipation, mostly, but also a little fear. Perhaps you’ve caught it from me.
“Was that her room?” you ask.
I look sharply at you. “That’s right. Do you remember?”
“Just a guess.”
You look at it hungrily then, as if the braver part of you wants to believe someone is up there now, watching you through the gaps in the shutters. The cicadas have stopped, and the silence is unnerving. Then, in miraculous unison, they start up again, even louder than before, and I stride determinedly toward the front door, fumbling in my bag for the key, knowing that if I don’t go in right now, I might drag you back to the car and drive straight home.
The church-cool air of the darkened hallway smells of mingled damp and smoke from the recent fire. Beneath them, faint but bone-deep familiar, I can just discern La Rêverie’s older scents: beeswax, butter-softened garlic, and my mother’s olive soap.
I’m so struck by this that it takes me a while to notice that your breathing has changed. I scrabble in the inside pocket of my handbag, praying that the inhaler I carry from habit rather than necessity is still there. At last my hand closes around plastic. I pull it out and shake it.
You’re fine after a couple of puffs, though your hands are already beginning to shake—a side effect of the drug seeping into your muscles.
“Okay now, darling?”
You nod, just once.
“It must be all the dust and damp,” I say, and you nod again, though both of us know that your asthma is triggered by stress and not by allergies.
While you’re unpacking, I wander around the house, methodically opening each door, except the one I’m not yet ready for. The shutters scream as I push them back, revealing fat black flies in sinister piles on the windowsills. As the light floods in, dust swarms.
Last of all, I steel myself to go and look at the fire damage. I know it’s in the scullery off the kitchen—la souillarde—a small space housing little more than a sink, draining board, and a couple of curtain-fronted cupboards that remains dark and cool however stifling it gets outside. Its window is no bigger than a sheet of paper, with chicken wire instead of glass in the frame.
Though the smells of fresh damage are strong when I open the door, it’s not as bad as I’ve been imagining since I received the letter. Two of the whitewashed walls are now marbled with black. In places, the marks are as high as my head. It’s hard to tell what is scorched and what is mold, the evidence mingling darkly. But whatever happened here, water must swiftly have followed fire. Otherwise the whole house would have gone up.
As evening begins to thicken around the house, you ask if we can go and eat in the village. We walk the ten minutes in, the tarmac soft under our feet, legs shiny with insect repellent in preparation for the evening’s emerging mosquitoes. The sun has already dipped behind the hills by the time we sit down at a table outside a pizzeria that wasn’t here before. We’re overlooking the tree-shaded patch of earth where the old men always played boules in their caps and suspenders, and doubtless still do, though they’re not out for the evening yet.
You ask me to ask the waitress for a Coke, too shy to try speaking in French, and I order a beer instead of my usual wine. When it comes, so cold that droplets of condensation have formed on the glass, I gulp it down like water and gesture for a second.
I catch your disapproving look and smile. “I saw that, my little puritan. It’s not like I’ve got to drive.”
“It must be strange being back,” you say cautiously, when you’ve finished your food. You’re swirling a plastic stirrer around your Coke glass.
I nod, though the second beer has made it less so.
“Do you miss it now that you’re here?”
I look up, surprised at your perceptiveness. On leaving for London when you were four, I bundled everything into a deep drawer marked “France” and slammed it shut, forgetting there was so much to love about home.
“I’m sorry I’ve kept you from the house for so long. You were born here too. It’s as much yours as mine.”
You glow. “It is?”
I smile and squeeze your hand.
“Mum, are you sure there’s no way of keeping the house? It’s such an amazing place. We could come here every summer. We could.”
I bat away a moth as it dances close to my eyes. “It’s impossible, chérie. I would need to buy out your aunt Camille and I can’t afford it. You know what she’s like.”
You frown, pulling your hand away, and for a split second you remind me of your sister. “I don’t think you’d do it even if you did have the money.” And then, as if you’ve heard my thoughts: “It’s because of her, isn’t it?”
I dig my fingernails into the table edge. “Emma, do you have any idea how hard it is for me to be back here?” The alcohol makes the words sharp and I regret them immediately. “Look, let’s not argue. I’m sorry I didn’t bring you before, but we’re here now, aren’t we?”
You don’t reply but after a while you nudge my hand in apology. Quite suddenly, I want to cry.
The walk back from the village is dark. No, not dark: pitch-black. The stars have been blotted out so thoroughly by clouds that it takes until we reach the turn-off before I can distinguish the shadowed bulk of the hills from the sky.
Despite the lack of visible moon, La Rêverie seems to stand in its own dim pool of light as we approach. Or perhaps it’s just our eyes, still adjusting to the countryside after years of London’s perpetually thrumming glow. It looks bigger by night, a monster of a house rising out of its dark moat of garden. I don’t look at the windows as we go up the path, keeping my head down, pretending to hunt in my bag for the key I’m already clutching.
Earlier in the afternoon, I had shaken out my mother’s soft old linen, only a little musty, and made us up a bed each: the creaking mahogany double Greg and I once shared, which was my parents’ before ours, and one of the narrow twins in the bedroom next to it for you. Your old room has only its small cot-bed and I don’t want you in there anyway.
“I remember this,” you exclaim, in the room that’s been a spare my whole life, pointing to the faded blue toile de Jouy wallpaper, which, in one corner, has begun to peel. “I used to sit on the floor and make up stories about the people.” You go closer, tracing a finger across the men in stockings, the ladies with their pompadours and fans. “I remember them.”
I wake at exactly three in the morning, the dimly glowing hands of my travel clock a perfect L. Downstairs, at the very edge of my hearing, I hear the ormolu clock in the salon as it chimes the hour. The bright, metallic ting is a sound older than memory to me, one that marked a benign passage through all the nights of my childhood, and I turn over, comforted. I’m just slipping into a dream of my mother winding it when I sit up, the bed groaning with the suddenness of the movement. I haven’t wound the clock.
The next morning I find you at the bottom of the terrace steps, barefoot in the long grass. I shade my eyes against the startling glare of the sun, my head tight from lack of sleep.
“I found the swimming pool,” you call up to me, full of glee. “I didn’t know there was one. It’s so cool.”
You don’t remember it from before. I try to smile: this is a good thing.
“Perhaps we can see about filling it, if the pump’s still working,” I make myself say. You’re a strong swimmer; I’ve made sure of that. I paid for years of lessons at an over-chlorinated municipal pool near our flat in London.
You look at me oddly. “It’s already filled.”
I know it was emptied ten years ago, when we left for good. Neither Camille nor I have touched it since.
But of course you’re right. The water glimmers mysteriously through the row of parasol pines my conservative father planted in the fifties for the sake of his daughters’ modesty. It isn’t the blinding turquoise of resort swimming pools but deep, darkling jade. On overcast days I always thought it looked like green ink.
I kneel at the edge and dip my hand in. Hardly yet warmed by the sun, the water runs like chilled silk through my fingers. There are only a few leaves and insects floating on the surface, clustered at the far end. Someone has cleared it recently.
I wonder if Olivier Lagarde arranged it. Perhaps he wound the clock in the salon too. I have the strangest sense that these things are simply the house welcoming us back. And perhaps trying to keep us here.
I glance at my bare wrist. “What time is it?”
“About half ten, I think.”
I get to my feet. “I have to meet the solicitor at eleven, in the village.”
“I’m staying here.”
I pause. “I thought you wanted to go to the hypermarket. You’ll have to come with me if you do. I’m going there on the way back.”
You grumble as we walk to the house but I know you don’t mind, really. You’ve never been the sort to put up much of a fight. My lovely biddable girl.
Only one other table is occupied at the café in the village—a couple, Dutch most likely: all long legs and hiking equipment.
“Darling, why don’t you go and look in the tabac over there?” I hand you a crisp ten-franc note. “Buy some postcards. The solicitor and I will be speaking in French.”
You blink, slightly stung, but go anyway, just as the waiter arrives.
Olivier Lagarde turns up just as you disappear into the shop across the square. He’s much handsomer than I’d expected from my dim memory of his father. It’s already hot and he’s rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, his arms burnished against blinding white cotton and the chrome of his watch. His grip when he shakes my hand is firm and warm. As he sits down, the Dutch woman’s eyes rake over him and I feel a little jolt that she might assume we’re together.
“Madame Winters, thank you for meeting me today.” He smiles easily, appreciatively, his eyes intent when I meet them.
“Please, call me Sylvie,” I say, looking away first. “And it’s Durand again, actually. I’m divorced.”
“Bien sûr. Sylvie, then. You’ve seen the damage now, I gather, and that it’s really quite superficial. I hope that was clear in my letter. I didn’t want to worry you unduly. You were lucky, though. It could have been…” He spreads his hands. There’s no need to say how it might have turned out.
“Do the police know who did it?”
He shrugs. “Kids with nothing to do, who else? It happens all the time in the countryside. Especially when people know a house is standing empty.”
“Have they arrested anyone?”
He shakes his head. “To them it’s a small thing. They couldn’t find any signs of forced entry. I’m sorry, Mada—Sylvie, but they weren’t very interested. One of them said it was probably the Gattaz boys.”
I nod. It’s a name I haven’t thought of since childhood. That and the French that comes so effortlessly is both liberating and rooting. No, confining. I wonder if this is how it’s going to be: the inexorable descent into the past, the years in England flickering and fading at the horizon.
I take a sip of my coffee: tiny, bitter, and delicious. “I don’t remember you. From growing up round here, I mean.”
“No, I went to school in Avignon. Stayed with my aunt during the week. My father insisted, but look how it turned out.” He smiles wryly. “I ended up here anyway.”
“Monsieur Lagarde,” I begin.
“Please, if I’m to call you Sylvie, you must call me Olivier.” He smiles again, as though we’ve shared something intimate. It occurs to me that he might be flirting but I’m so rusty I can’t be sure.
“D’accord,” I say, inclining my head. “Olivier. I said to you on the phone that it might be time we sold La Rêverie. We’ve been putting it off, my sister and I, and I’m not sure why anymore. Maybe what happened is a sign that we should get on with it.”
“I can help you sell, if that’s what you want. I can put you in touch with someone at Century 21. Martine. She’s good. But you should know that it’s a sluggish market. The old Pelletier farm has been empty for two years now.”
He catches the waiter’s eye, then looks back at me. “Stay for another?”
I find myself nodding and he holds up two fingers.
“It’s the best time of year for the tourists, at least,” he continues easily. “There’s a chance someone like them”—he nods at the couple in walking gear—“might decide they want their own piece of France. Five good-sized bedrooms, a big garden with a pool: it would make an excellent holiday home for a family. Though we’re slightly off the beaten track here, of course. Now, if it was an hour closer to the coast things would be easier… I said the same thing to your sister when we spoke.”
The sun has moved so it’s beating down on my head. I shift slightly toward Olivier to escape its glare and knock against the table. He puts out a hand to steady it.
“Désolée,” I murmur, aware of the heat rising in my cheeks.
Absurdly, I find myself wondering whom he would judge to be the more attractive of Camille and me. Your aunt was the archetypal Parisienne even before she was one. She always looked down on the aging housewives in the village for their thickened waists and badly dyed hair. I hadn’t seen her without an immaculately made-up face since she was eighteen. I run my hand through my own unbrushed hair, then make myself stop.
Across the square, you sidle out of the tabac
- "A sultry, gorgeously written and hugely atmospheric thriller with a dark, compelling mystery at its heart."—Lucy Foley, New York Times bestselling author of The Hunting Party
- "An ambitious, challenging, and ultimately deeply rewarding novel."—Booklist
- "S.J. Watson fans will want to check this one out."—Publishers Weekly
- "Outstanding. An absolute page-turner."—Rosie Walsh, New York Times bestselling author of Ghosted
- "Tense and deliciously atmospheric, it unravels a mother-daughter relationship with a growing sense of menace. A gripping and thoroughly enjoyable read."—Emma Rous, author of The Au Pair
"Sultry, atmospheric and unsettling -- a book to lose yourself in this summer."
—Erin Kelly, author of He Said/She Said and The Poison Tree
- "I couldn't stop reading this book. The writing is rich and multi-layered, but it's the subtlety of the characterizations that hook you and won't let you go. A taut and stunning novel!"—Gill Paul, bestselling author of The Secret Wife
- "Kate Riordan takes the summer thriller to the next level with The Heatwave. Mesmeric writing, beguiling characters and a plot that will make your blood run cold."—Veronica Henry, author of How to Find Love in a Bookshop
- "A story that draws you in instantly and really doesn't loosen its grip, right up until the last little twist on the final page."—Iona Grey, author The Glittering Hour
- On Sale
- May 25, 2021
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing