I have made a start on my reading of the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.
So first out of the blocks is a book published by Granta Publications Jenny Offill’s Weather.
This is not a lengthy book, coming in at around 200 pages. Offill plays with technique, but not in a mad way that makes you never want to go to Newburyport or see another duck as long as you live. Nevertheless there is a certain experimentalism in the presentation of the prose in separated paragraphs throughout.
I love this – that you can breathe in between. Sometimes there is a separate thought or action in the new paragraph and sometimes there is not. But there is nothing disjointed or irritating about the work which I felt flowed very well. If this is stream of consciousness then it is the sort that I can happily live with!
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It immediately put me in mind of the work of poet and sometime genius Ocean Vuong who has popped up with an endorsement on the cover. ‘This is so good,’ states Vuong, ‘we are not ready nor worthy.’
I’m not sure if I feel unworthy or unready for Offill’s work but I sort of see where the comment is coming from. This book is indeed very good and I feel I want to read it again.
So the blurb on the fly leaf posits this work as being about a lady called Lizzie Benson working as a librarian – without a traditional degree (shock, horror). She has supported for years her Mother and recovering addict brother. Lizzie takes on a project to answer mail for a podcast host/philosopher and lecturer called Sylvia who gets too much mail and who throughout the book seems to withdraw further and further into silence.
And although the book does do these things, the blurb fails to mention entirely that Lizzie is primary carer for her son Eli and that she is happily married to Ben, that she acquires a sister in law and a niece along the way. So in common with most women she spends her days juggling multiple responsibilities alongside her paid work. Her brother Henry requires a huge amount of support – particularly when he is rather unsuitably left in charge of a newborn baby – time and effort which Lizzie, in saintly fashion, never begrudges.
But the narrative of events takes second place against a background of 21st century hysteria and incipient climate crisis:
“Eli is at the kitchen table, trying all his markers one by one to see which still work. Ben brings him a bowl of water so he can dip them in to test. According to the current trajectory, New York City will begin to experience dramatic, life altering temperatures by 2047.”
Someone should write a history of snow while we still know what it looks like.
Weather must have been written pre-Corvid but it is an ideal and timely read for this crisis. Offill’s writing defies both categorisation and bland description. I recommend reading it to find out what it does. It certainly deserves its place on the short-list. Will it win? It is so very different in scope and tone from some of the others on the list – at least the ones that I have so far read – and yet the role of a novel is to describe to people the times they are living through so that they recognise themselves in the story, or the times their ancestors lived through, or the times we might live through in the future. And all the shortlisted books do this.
I feel Weather crumbles a bit at the end but that is no doubt deliberate because society will crumble a bit at the end
I do hope to have a punt at the winner before an announcement is made, but it is too early to say if I will choose Weather.