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!

Best names in a novel. Ever.

Cover: The Elephant Keepers' ChildrenDo you remember Danish author Peter Høeg’s hugely popular Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow? I’ve just finished reading his latest novel The Elephant Keepers’ Children and what a rollicking good read it turned out to be.

To begin with, let’s just settle the little matter of the title. No Elephants were harmed in the making of this book. The Keepers are a pastor and his organist wife, and it’s their Children who steal the show.

Peter and his sister Tilte have lost their parents, who have quite simply disappeared. Set in Denmark and translated from Danish, the story is narrated by Peter. The elephant in their parents’ room is that:

They want to know what God really is. That is what they live for.

Enter a cast of eccentric characters from almost every religion in the world as the two precocious children set out to rescue their parents, who in Peter’s own words are:

beyond the pale and have now ventured out into the field of miracles.

But it is over the naming of the characters that I want to throw down the gauntlet here: this novel has the most creatively named characters that I have encountered in an adult fiction book in a long, long time. Other than a smattering of Dickens characters and some of the names created in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, this is the first time in ages that the names given to characters have made such an impact on me. They roll off the tongue and they beg to be said out loud; here’s a sample:

  • Alexander Beastly Flounderblood
  • Bishop Anaflabia Borderrud
  • Professor Thorkild Thorlacius-Claptrap
  • Leonora Ticklepalate (an expert in Information Technology!)
  • Einar Flogginfellow
  • Sinbad Al-Blablab

It made me wonder – were I a character in one of Peter Høeg’s books, what name would I be given? How about – Robertina Blogabit-Talkalot?

But here’s what I’m building up to: how important is the naming of characters in novels and have you got any great examples you’d like to share with us?