Don’t be put off by its brevity, Jenny Offill’s Weather packs a mighty literary punch

Lizzie Benson, the narrator of Jenny Offill’s latest novel Weather, is a failed university student, librarian, surveyor of life and lives, and enthusiastic amateur psychiatrist. She is busily absorbed in managing the everyday: her relationship with husband Ben, a laid-back IT specialist, caring for her worryingly bright son, religion-obsessed mother and recovering addict brother. Yoga. A possible affair. Life.

“I wish you were a real shrink,” my husband says. “Then we’d be rich.”

Then her old University professor and mentor Sylvie, offers her a job on her hugely successful futurologist podcast Hell and High Water.  She has to reply to the emails from across the spectrum of listeners: Left wingers fired up about climate change, far Righters, guns raised over the decline in western civilisation and loss of civil rights. And, increasingly, those drawn irrevocably through the smoke of a burning planet, to the Rapture.

Lizzie’s observations come via brilliant practical self-contained capsules, which, when joined together create a unique, sparkling constellation. A bit like Elon Musk’s Starlink, but without the light pollution.

Some paragraphs, many paragraphs, are plain laugh-out-loud funny. Others are little time bombs, suddenly catching you unawares, paragraphs, even pages, later. It is one of those books you devour in one sitting, then immediately regret your rapacious action, and keep returning to it.

Weather is short, with short paragraphs – even shorter than her much acclaimed debut novel Dept. of Speculation. But do not be put off by its apparent brevity it packs a literary punch far stronger than books many times its length. Offill has created a world so prescient that it makes these strange days in which we currently live, seem normal.

I’m starting to understand why all those people want to go to Mars. The guest today on the show is explaining that many scientists are in a state of barely suppressed panic about the latest data coming in. The previous models were too conservative. Everything is happening much faster than expected. He signs off with a small, borrowed witticism.

 Many of us subscribe to the same sentiment as our colleague Sherwood Rowland. He remarked to his wife one night after coming home: “The work is going well, but it looks like it might be the end of the world.”

 Weather by Jenny Offill is published by Granta. It is shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced on Wednesday September 9th.

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