This is my fourth review of the Women’s Prize shortlist – so far, I’ve looked at the novels by Mantel, Evaristo, and O’Farrell – and this is another sharp and intelligent novel to add to the pile. At times drily witty, and yet also threaded through with a tangible fear about the future, Weather is a beautifully observed novel of what it is to live in an American city in the Twenty-First Century. Written before the pandemic, the novel’s over-riding concern is for a future beset by environmental disaster.
Lizzie Benson has a lot of people leaning on her. Her job as an unqualified university librarian (her former university supervisor used to check in ‘to see if I was still squandering my promise’) is carried lightly – it allows her to watch and help other people, often to the detriment of her own life. Lizzie’s brother’s mental health is declining and she must attempt to rescue him – it seems that this isn’t the first time. The fears of the world are infectious, and Lizzie begins to swot up on survival strategies for the apocalyptic future in store, planning her family’s escape to the ‘doomstead’ . Her work for her former university lecturer, who now speaks on environmental issues, exacerbates her awareness of walking towards a precipice. Half way through the novel, the election of Trump ratchets up the tension in the city, and in a paragraph reminiscent of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Lizzie tells us,
‘Women of reproductive age are being urged to get IUDs. They can last six to twelve years and so might outlast the shuttering of the clinics. But it’s suddenly hard to see a doctor; the appointments are all booked up for months and the waiting rooms at the walk-in clinics are full of nervous white women.’
Written as it is in the present, tense, this is a clever and thoughtful snapshot of where we are heading if we’re not careful.
One of the many perfect things about this novel is the balance Offill achieves between the mundane – ‘I have to call and get instructions about how to get all the mouse shit off the spice rack’ – and the apocalyptic. Lizzie’s fears are the things that keep many of us awake at night, whilst her life is familiar in it’s routines. The other perfect thing (and I appreciate this is a personal liking) is the physical size of the book – it’s a hardback which is the size of a paperback, and so it is both substantial and easy to curl up with. It is hard to do Offill’s quiet prose justice – suffice to say, I read it avidly in one sitting, and it confirms the strength of this year’s entire Women’s Prize Shortlist. So far, there isn’t a dud amongst them.