Author(s): Jenny Offill
From the author of Dept. of Speculation, a dazzling and deadpan new novel about hope and despair, fear and comfort as it plays out in these times of environmental and political turbulence.
'What are you afraid of, he asks me and the answer of course is dentistry, humiliation, scarcity, then he says what are your most useful skills? People think I'm funny'
Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practise her other calling: as an unofficial shrink.
For years, she has supported her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but then her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. Sylvia has become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As she dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you've seen the flames beyond its walls.
When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to acknowledge the limits of what she can do. But if she can't save others, then what, or who, might save her? And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in--funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.
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"Our narrator Lizzie is a librarian, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter. She is a caretaker, an emotional labourer. She doesn’t believe she has lived up to her full potential. She takes a job answering emails to a podcast about inevitable ecological disaster and finds her mind now holds the worries of the end days as well as the day-to-day.
Offill’s delectable bite-sized paragraphs and short vignettes (I transcribed many) alternate between observation and conversation, Q&As, trivia and excerpts. Each offers fleeting yet penetrating emotion. A flash of anxiety is soon smothered by amusement. Fear, boredom. Thrill, unconditional love. Existential dread is rife. But we’re used to this by now, aren’t we?
Complacency is a survival tactic, of sorts. Offill has skewered her own complacency with Weather, and in doing so she shakes awake her reader. In an interview with Offill in The Guardian, Joanna Scutts writes: ‘To confront a looming apocalypse through reading, she admits, was “deeply silly, and also the only thing I knew to do”.’ Same."
— Reviewed by our bookseller Kate
Shortlisted for The Women's Prize for Fiction 2020