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!

Sex and climate change

Cover: SolarIt’s high time that climate change got sexed up. Off the top of my head, I can think of no more effective passion killer than those two words introduced in the heat of the moment (as it were).

Of course the library has heaps of tomes on climate change and you are at liberty to wade your way through them. But I’m talking about fiction that uses the theme of climate change to entertain us and, believe it or not, this unlikely coupling exists. Christchurch Libraries has no fewer than thirteen adult fiction books on this theme and two of them are by authors with serious literary clout:

  • Solar – Ian McEwan
  • Flight Behavior – Barbara Kingsolver (Yes, we’ve bought the American copy with the funny spelling)

Both these books do the seemingly impossible: they connect the reader to environmental problems through the sexual antics of the main characters. In Solar, Michael Beard is a short, bald, unattractive-looking academic with enormous sexual pull. Don’t say you haven’t met any men like this because I nearly married one, and I don’t believe I’m that unusual. He does the Ecological Conference Circuit presenting papers on his specialisation: wind turbines for domestic use. If you’ve read other McEwan books, prepare to be taken by surprise, as this book is very, very funny.

In Flight Behaviour, Dellarobia is Kingsolver’s main character. She is a feisty young woman who has sexual longings of great intensity for men other than her rather endearing husband. This is not a sexually explicit book, but the yearning, the longing is palpable. She describes her marriage this way:

It’s like I’m standing by the mailbox waiting all the time for a letter. Every day you come along and put something else in there. A socket wrench, or a milkshake. It’s not bad stuff. Just the wrong things for me.

Cover: Flight BehaviorBehind her home on a  Tennessee smallholding, a massive colony of butterflies makes an unexpected appearance. This event, and its effect on the small town and Dellarobia, is conveyed absolutely beautifully: God’s Will is given a long leash and then reined ever so subtly in, Science comes out of its corner pulling no punches, and relationships shift before our very eyes. But at heart, this book is a song of praise for education. Dellarobia needed it – desired it even, but her school, her community and her fertility all conspired against her.

So how do these two books differ? In Solar, you learn about Michael Beard through the subject of climate change. In Flight Behaviour, you learn a lot more about the subject of climate change through Dellarobia. I loved them both.