Weather by Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill's Weather is quite unlike anything else I can remember reading. The subject matter is fairly straightforward. An American campus library assistant, her emotional wherewithal already stretched thin by family responsibilities and the endless problems of the library customers, gets a second job answering emails sent to her former professor's futurology podcast. As Lizzie sifts through the endless enquiries about climate change, the apocalypse and doomsday prepping, and all to the backdrop of the imminent presidency of Donald Trump, she finds herself becoming increasingly consumed with her fears for the future of civilisation.

It's not so much the story that feels original as the way in which it's told, through short snapshots that read almost like brief diary entries. We know the order in which things are happening, but we're not given much to indicate timescale beyond a few anchor points here and then, so we've often no idea whether days, weeks or even months might have passed between one paragraph and another. The main narrator's brother meets a woman, moves in and has a baby with her over the course of the story, so we have a rough idea of the duration of the story, but there are almost no explanatory links to take us from one incident to another.

This really gives the author's prose nowhere to hide: Weather is a novel distilled down to its essence, reduced to the best bits. Fortunately, Offill's writing lives up to the form - each vignette feels almost self-contained and every detail is a revealing one. Weather is often very funny, and in a way that feels plausible and real, but there are also lines that are quietly devastating, and the most mundane interactions often pack the biggest punch. 

Lizzie's increasingly uncontrolled worries about the long-term future of humanity are often expressed in witty, flippant terms, but her fear still comes across as very real, and I came away with the feeling that the line between legitimate fears and obsessive anxiety can be uncomfortably blurred, particularly when Trump (unnamed, almost as if Lizzie fears that naming him will somehow make him more powerful) is elected part way through the book. All this, though, is juxtaposed with the narrower but equally intense worries of family life, and Lizzie has plenty of those - her brother, in particular, is a source of constant concern and a persistent drain on her time and energy. The fragmented narrative hops constantly between universal and the personal, and it's easy to see why Lizzie is starting to feel overwhelmed - and yet somehow, she never loses her sense of the absurd. As someone who also tends to find a source of humour in her own anxieties, I found this strongly relatable.

Weather is a book that took me somewhat by surprise with its impact. My only complaint is that it's such a short novel, written in such short paragraphs, that it was over all too quickly.