It’s that time again! My TBR for the month only went live yesterday, but I’d already been working my way through Weather by Jenny Offill. As I’m on my quest to read through all the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 shortlisters, I had to get to this one eventually. I had heard some mixed things about it prior to reading it and, to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I had a strong feeling that I’d either love it or hate it, but some authors that I like have written blurb reviews for it, so I was hopeful.
I have to admit, I neither loved nor hated it. I enjoyed it, but not enough to love it, you know? I really liked the protagonist, prepper Lizzie Benson. The book’s focus on the climate anxiety many people — particularly young people — are currently experiencing, along with the mentions of and allusions to an incredibly unstable, volatile political environment caught me quite early on. While I don’t like books that are a bit too on the nose with their references to modern life and popular culture, Weather seemed to toe the line between being insightful and relevant to the modern day without being so focused on current events that the book itself would quickly become irrelevant.
Autofiction is a relatively new genre, or at least, new to the levels of success it has been seeing in the past few years. Jenny Offill, along with Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgard have been steadily pushing autofiction out of the realms of academia and into more popular discourse for the last few years, which has seen these books gaining more and more attention. If you’re unfamiliar with autofiction (it is still a very new genre after all!), it’s somewhat of a hybrid between a memoir and a novel. Don’t get me wrong: autofiction is NOT autobiography. Rather, the character is a fictional representation of the author. The exact events that happen in these novels is generally fictional, but heavily drawn on the author’s own life and experiences. Of course, all fiction to some extent is influenced by the author’s life and experiences, but in autofiction, the focus is on the reliance on the author’s own self. Autofiction is usually characterised by its concern with current events, and its political slant.
Weather is told in brief paragraphs. This isn’t the place to come if you like descriptive language: description is few and far between. It’s very bare bones, but Offill certainly knows how to put a sentence together. It’s quite witty in places, and always entertaining. The narrative is pieced together through snapshots, eliminating those scenes that serve mostly to bridge between two events. It’s a fairly experimental way of writing, though I have seen similar things done before. I quite like this barebones, fragmental approach — Weather feels like the events contained within it could easily be a 400-page book, but instead, it’s only around 200 pages. Everything important is told, everything not important, well, what happens there is up to the reader to decide.
The characters who weren’t Lizzie were where I felt slightly let down by this book. They weren’t bad, but I found it a bit difficult to remember very much about them. There’s Lizzie’s brother, who struggles with addiction and mental health problems, and her husband, who disapproves of the way Lizzie steps in to take care of her brother. This conflict perhaps wasn’t played out to the extent it could have been. The climax of the conflict sees her husband taking their son and going to stay with his family without Lizzie after she turns down their invitation to join them in order to care for her brother. The resolution, however, doesn’t seem to come. There’s also the suggestion of adultery which again, is never resolved. These loose ends are not necessarily a failing of the book, but it made the characters they involve feel weaker given the form of the book itself, because the fragmented narrative makes the development of secondary and tertiary characters challenging, so to leave these strings dangling felt more like the characters weren’t fully developed enough to resolve these plot arcs, rather than an authorial choice.
Overall, this was a great read, and I’m glad it was nominated for the Women’s Prize else I don’t think I would really have heard about it or paid it much attention. If you’ve not tried autofiction before, I don’t know if this is the best place to start, but I would perhaps recommend Outline, the trilogy by Rachel Cusk if it’s something you’re interested in getting into before returning to Weather. If you know you like fragmented narratives, though, this is definitely a book worth picking up. I find the surge of fragmented narratives being seen at the minute really interesting in regards to the ways social media has affected people’s attention spans, and if that’s something that also interests you, then this book is the perfect match.