Always take the weather with you

An umbrella to ward off the existential dread, sir? A review of Jenny Offill's Weather

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

First, they came for the coral but I did not say anything because I was not a coral…

Eli is at the kitchen table, trying all his markers one by one to see which still work. Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life-altering temperatures by 2047.

Weather by Jenny Offill

Lizzie is a librarian with a husband, a son, a drug-addict brother, a habit of taking a car service she can’t afford because she worries she’s the driver’s only customer - and a serious case of climate change-induced existential dread.

This is kind of a cheat for a newsletter about nature writing, because there is no nature writing in this novel - but it does deal with one of the reasons nature writing is becoming ever more important.

But hasn’t the world always been going to hell in a handbasket? I asked her. Parts of the world, yes, but not the world entire, she said.

I tell her that I’ve been thinking that we should buy some land somewhere colder. That if climate departure happens in New York when predicted, Eli and Iris could - “Do you really think you can protect them? In 2047?” Sylvia asks. I look at her. Because until this moment, I did, I did somehow think this. She orders another drink. “Then become rich, very, very rich,” she says in a tight voice.

Weather’s short, declarative paragraphs, often disconnected, remind us that we’re all going to the supermarket and worrying about super and somehow contriving, most of the time, to ignore what every single scientist is telling us is going to happen really quite soon. “Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised”, said Ms. Mrema, “and the more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own well-being, security and prosperity.” (People with children: how do you cope? I truly want to know.)

It reminded me of Olivia Laing’s Crudo, which I also loved. They’re both short novels that are urgent yet crafted responses to what is happening in our world right now, to events that, for those of us who aren’t artists, often seem too lumpy to process into art. Weather references Trump’s election, climate change, refugees, how to choose people for your ‘doomstead’ (“First, you must assess their character. Will they lead? Will they follow? … Second, you must balance the skills of the people you choose… Third, you must figure out how to tell them you have drafted them for your doomstead”). And both Weather and Crudo were fast, easy reads that demand and repay a repeat, deeper read.

Offill is funny and perceptive and devastating often all in the same sentence.

And then it is another day and another and another, but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.

And I think I shouldn’t say anything more apart from beg you to read this book. It’s so good and timely (and timeless) and beautiful and sad. What else is there?

Weather was my 85th book of 2020. I also read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which was number 84, and am still gobbling up Hermione Lee’s incredibly long but deeply satisfying biography, Virginia Woolf, which obviously will be 86 but I can’t count that yet because I haven’t finished it! Once I have, I might gallop through my annual reread of Orlando to complete my little wander down Woolf lane - what do you think?

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