by Zoë Somerville
Aren’t British people supposed to be endlessly fascinated by the weather? I certainly am. In writing my novel The Night of the Flood, I focused on a natural disaster where people, animals and the land itself were vulnerable against the great force of a sea storm surge, a real event from 1953, in which many died and many more were made homeless.
I’ve always been fascinated by stories of the force of nature, and even more so now when humanity is facing the destruction of the natural world, when seasons seem upended and spring is cold and the winter is mild, when summer brings drought and autumn brings floods.
In many dystopian novels human beings are subject to the impersonal power of a natural order gone wrong such as The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard or The High House by Jessie Greengrass. But I’m also interested in novels where recent or historical weather events become part of the narrative itself.
Here are some of my favourites:
‘There are no chattering squirrels, no haunted rabbits, no wading turtles in the woods. I don’t know where they’ve gone, but there are none here. When I look at the sky, the grey of it shaking as I run, I see birds in great flocks that would darken the sun if we could see it through the thickening clouds.’
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
In Ward’s debut novel she sets a very human story of survival against the terrifying backdrop of Hurricane Katrina. Esch and her brothers scratch a precarious existence already but when the hurricane and subsequent flood comes, it becomes a battle for life itself. Ward beautifully evokes the marginal lives of those who live on the Gulf of Mexico and filial love in a time of crisis.
Another great American novel where a hurricane forms part of the narrative is Zora Neale Hurston’s And Their Eyes Were Watching God and where the flood that ensues affects the poorest in society.
‘Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards […] people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into the nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.’
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
This is one of my favourite novels of all time, and it’s opening lines are some of the finest weather-related prose. The weather Dickens is preoccupied with is fog and here, it’s a metaphorical fog as well as the famous London smog which bedevilled the city for years, right up until the smog of 1952, the year my own novel opens. The fog represents the murky, hidden world of crime, punishment and law in Victorian London. Dickens also gives us a vivid rendering of the mud that flows through the streets in the city.
For other Victorian novels that portray extreme weather, look at the flood in The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot or the one of the many storms in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
‘Behind the hiss of the wind and the chatter of the stream, the land lay silent. I passed the skeleton of a reindeer. […] I was aware of the noises around me - the wind, the water, my panting breath but somehow they only deepened the stillness. I felt it as a physical presence. Immense.’
Dark Matter by Michelle Paver
Anyone who’s watched the BBC’s ‘The Terror’ recently should read this book. It’s set in the 1930s and is a pitch perfect ghost story chillingly conjuring the conditions of explorers in the Arctic ice. For another spine-tingling read, try Paver’s Thin Ice, this time set in the Himalayas. I particularly love the evocation of the terrors of isolation, extreme cold and how it can affect the mind.
Other great books in which snow is a powerful presence include Snow by Orhan Pamuk, Stephen King’s The Shining and famously, the snow that falls over Dublin in Joyce’s last story in The Dubliners, ‘The Dead’.
‘The heatwave instilled a lethargy in us that was difficult to shake off. We lay torpid in the sun, limbs stretched, soaking up the heat.’
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy
At the opposite end of the weather spectrum, Hardy’s brilliant debut novel is set in the baking summer of 1976. A darkly gothic tale of folklore and hidden depravity, it’s a taut, beautifully written book about a family who leave London for a run down cottage in a remote Welsh village, after a tragedy. The heat is rendered so viscerally you can almost imagine the sweat running down your own neck.
‘The days were too long, it was too hot, the house seemed to have fallen asleep. […]And even while it was hot, the sun never quite broke through a high, yellowish cloud; everything I looked at merged and seemed insignificant in the glare.’
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
This is another book set in the same hot summer. It is Ian McEwan’s first novel and is short, dark and intense. It’s also a family drama but a twisted one, where four children are left alone after their mother dies. Like Water Shall Refuse Them, that long, dry summer is powerfully conveyed and seems to infect the characters with both a languor and a blurring of moral boundaries.
Other famous novels where heat is a strong presence is Albert Camus’ The Stranger where the arbitrary, impersonal North African heat leads to murder or the hot summer which oppresses Leo in LP Hartley’s The Go Between.
And finally, a non-fiction recommendation:
‘Our weather is made up of personal memories and moods; an evening sky is full of other evenings; a mist may be given its identity by a line from a song or a half-remembered film. The weather is partly made up for us by writers and artists who have set down permanently their response to a fleeting effect.’
Weatherland by Alexandra Harris
I couldn’t resist including this wonderful book. While I was writing The Night of the Flood I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how writers and artists through the ages had been inspired by and described the fickle weather of this small island.
I continue to be fascinated by extreme weather and its effect on the psyche and my second novel is set during the Big Freeze of the winter of 1962/63 when the Thames froze and even some of the sea.
Zoë Somerville is the author of debut novel The Night of the Flood, published in paperback by Head of Zeus in May 2021.