Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Literary anger

Over at Arts and Ecology, William Shaw is warming up for the arrival of Ian McEwan’s coming novel, Solar, by asking can literary fiction ever do climate change? I share the doubts about Solar but do think that there are good ‘literary’ novelists writing about climate change directly, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Hall for a start. All three women have written novels set in futures decimated by climate change. Whether their novels are literary fiction or science fiction is less important to me than the vivid, engaged storytelling.

Sarah Hall in particular writes about human relationships with nature with feeling, intelligence and fury, a great combination. In The Carhullan Army she imagines Britain wrecked by oil shortages and floods in the near future. Her narrator escapes bleak authoritarianism of town life for female commune on the Cumbrian moors, yet there’s no escape from violence.


Hall has said that the Cumbrian floods of 2005 inspired The Carhullan Army. Her first novel, Haweswater, anticipated those floods and is for me in many ways the more interesting novel. It explores the same Cumbrian landscape, showing the stark beauty of villagers’ lives in the valley of Mardale. People, time and place are torn apart by the arrival of a representative for Manchester Waterworks who announces plans to flood the land to create a reservoir. The casual destruction of the whole valley is based on reality, vividly dramatised in the novel. The personal and the ecological intertwine through the tragedy Hall depicts. As a historical novel, Haweswater is not about climate change, but it is an impressive portrayal of human impact on landscape, and shows how fruitful this subject is for ‘literary’ writers. Most of importantly, the novel has none of McEwan's diffidence about ideas: it’s bold, roaring.

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