Stormy weather

Cover of Caribou IslandWe had two hours of sunshine over a six day Christmas holiday in a Catlins bach. Small wonder my mind turned to thoughts of the weather in fiction.

And I’m not talking about your everyday gentle Mediterranean breeze here. I’m talking about weather with attitude. The sort of unwanted bad stuff that pulls out a chair at the table and settles in for the long haul. The sort of weather that drives couples in enclosed spaces to the edge of their tolerance, when even a good argument seems preferable to scanning the skies, yet again, for a tiny patch of blue.

And, indeed, there are novels where the weather is like an additional character in the plot, where you feel that the weather is partly responsible for everything that goes wrong and a few of the things that go right. Here’s my selection of great weather reads:

  • Caribou Island – David Vann’s novel about the dangers of attempting to fulfil someone else’s obsession, set in a bitterly cold climate.
  • Cover of The Sheltering SkyThe Shipping News – Annie Proulx. The 1994 Pulitzer prizewinning novel in which unpredictable weather plays a key role.
  • Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Peter Hoeg. A detective’s “visceral feeling for snow” makes for a chilling Danish thriller.
  • Atonement – Ian McEwan. Read this review in The Guardian on the effect of weather on the characters in this novel.
  • The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles’ novel reveals the effect that strange environments and great heat can have on relationships.

Four out of five of these books have been made into films. Which begs the question: is extreme weather an asset, visually and atmospherically, in both novels and films? But don’t take my word for it, here’s Ernest Hemingway on the subject:

Remember to get the weather into your god damned book – weather is very important.

As far as our little Catlins trip went, in the end we did not have a marital spat, instead opting for a drive in the pouring rain to Gore, for a cappuccino. And in that one sentence resides everything you need to know as to why a film will never be made of my life!

The Chameleon Reader

I become the books I read.

Chameleon like, I take on the speech patterns and idiosyncracies of the characters on the page. This is not too detrimental to everyday life and personal relationships when I am reading something sunny and upbeat, but when I am in the throes of a dark, dysfunctional read – woe betide.

David Vann is one of the authors at the . I took his book Caribou Island on a recent trip to Sydney. From the get go, the book and real life became intertwined. As the plane ascended, the passenger in front of me took ill and the fruits of her labour flowed back into my handbag narrowly missing Caribou Island. A clear case of real life mirroring the many physical discomforts of this book.

Fortunately there wasn’t much time for reading in Sydney or, given my chameleon tendencies, I’d have morphed into an unfulfilled wife sniping at her husband’s bumbling failures. Add in a whole bunch of “searching for self” young people in bitterly cold, isolated Alaska and the scene is set. Sounds bleak I know, but the message that comes across (live your  dream, not someone else’s) is so well wrought, I guarantee you will relish your reading of this book.

The sick passenger on the plane was tended to by a very young doctor, the apple of his mother’s eye to be sure, who had (after eight years of study and vast sums of money) chosen this day to wear his  “Musician Searching for Groupies” t-shirt!

So Vann-like.

And the chameleon in me does not believe it would have happened like this had I been reading a  Danielle Steel!

Warning – Spoiler Alert

Legend of a suicideMost reviews of David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide have a warning – do not read a detailed plot summary until after you have read the book. It will spoil the impact of this incredibly powerful story. So I won’t let you in on the secrets of the plot but let me tell you, this is the best thing I have read in a long time.

David Vann, an assistant professor of creative writing at Stanford University, visited NZ recently to promote his book and talk to Kim Hill. He talked about the suicide of his father when he was barely a teen. Based on this relationship with this hopeless Dad, Vann mixes memoir and fiction to exact a stunning but “not so sweet” revenge. It is absolutely mind-blowing and compelling. Lionel Shriver was thinking of suing David Vann for several hours of lost sleep. “I defy you to put this book down,” she says.

Even when you put it down, it haunts you like a vivid dream. The raw beauty of the wilderness, the wry commentary on American middle class families, but, all pervading, is the flawed relationship between father and son. “A father, after all, is a lot for a thing to be,” says Vann. Read it at your peril – it is deeply disturbing, funny, and utterly beautiful. I’d be interested in what you think about it.

Read The Shape of Things by Bill Ralston in the Listener if you are puzzled but only after reading the book.  If you really can’t get your head around it think of it not as a straight narrative but more like a sandwich of short semi- autobiographical stories with a novella in the middle.  But then I like being puzzled…