REVIEW: Jenny Offill – Weather
13th October 2020
Review by Heather Craddock
A novel abounding with worries, Weather is the subject of a wide-ranging discussion between author, Jenny Offill, and Claire Malcolm. The online interview format seems an appropriate reflection of the continual shifts in and out of the echo chamber of Lizzie’s thoughts which take place in Weather. It is something of an unassuming title, particularly in the context of the commonplace but increasingly precarious reflections on the British weather.
Beginning with a reading from early in the novel, Offill presents her perspective not only on climate change, but also on the current political weather of the US and the current pandemic. The central character Lizzie balances childcare, librarianship and general caretaking of others with an expanding awareness of the climate crisis, while remaining slightly outside of the realm of climate academia in which her friend Sylvia operates. Offill is careful to emphasise the ‘ordinariness’ of Lizzie. The discussion of Weather as a ‘Trojan Horse’, or a way into climate change engagement for those not ‘naturally’ interested, is a highlight of this discussion.
Referring to the need to prevent the novel from being ‘stuck in time’, Offill explains her process of fictionalising the realities of recent US political history. Equally timely is the climate podcast, Hell and High Water, which is central to Lizzie’s increasing engagement with climate change in the novel, as she responds to the highly specific and bizarre emails sent to Sylvia after episodes and conferences. Just as the novel makes use of humour despite its serious themes, the opportunity for a surprisingly light-hearted pause is taken to consider the provisions made by ‘preppers’ for climate catastrophe, into which Offill dutifully delved in her research.
Pointing to the novel’s epigraph as an example of the extensive research conducted in the process of writing the novel, Offill gives an outline of not only the reasoning behind her form and writing style but also how she sees the impact of this kind of creative work about climate change more widely. Offill sees the abundance of white space in her novel as a space for readers’ thoughts to fill, describing her chosen form as something ‘closer to the way thought moved’ by association. In response to what she felt was missing in many novels dealing with climate change, Offill sought to display a sense that climate issues ‘swung in and swung out of people’s thoughts’ and are not necessarily tied to ‘self-righteousness’.
Having considered the novel’s success in engaging humorously with the vast and chiefly negative narrative around the climate crisis, Offill reflects on how this parallels the pandemic. What comes to the fore is the accumulative impact of communal action which both crises require, though Offill cautions that the impact of the pandemic has been visceral, where climate change remains more abstract for many people. This forty-minute discussion does well to pull out some of the most timely and necessary aspects of this novel which is worthy of many re-reads in turbulent times to come.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.