Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Place of Extremes

Sun and rain clouds over Moorea on the ferry to Tahiti, December 2007

Here in the Washington D.C. area we have just emerged from the grip of a brutal heat wave with temperatures above 100 degrees F and sky-high humidity. Meanwhile, my other country across the Atlantic has had the wettest June since records began with no end to the deluge in sight.

Both kinds of extreme weather are hard to handle while you’re living through them, but both can be a powerful atmospheric force in fiction. For sheer tropical heat, you can’t beat the last section of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust when Tony Last goes on an expedition to the Brazilian jungle to try to forget his cheating wife. And for a good British drenching rain, there is the passage from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations describing the wretched weather on the night that Magwitch comes back into Pip’s life “...stormy and wet, stormy and wet; and mud, mud, mud, deep in all the streets. Day after day, a vast heavy veil had been driving over London from the East, and it drove still, as if in the East there were an Eternity of cloud and wind.”

My own fiction has ranged from the cold incessant rain of Belfast in The Province of the Imagination:

As she had expected, the cemetery seemed to be deserted. She paused after locking the car to turn up her collar, savoring the chance to be away from inquisitive eyes. There was a light in the window of the lodge by the car park, and Sandie imagined a pair of gravediggers straight out of Shakespeare brewing up a pot of tea. Who would want to be out digging graves in this eternal, bone-crushing damp, she thought as she walked through the wrought-iron gates. It was drizzling, but she had deliberately left the umbrella in the car. She felt wet both inside and out, drenched to the core. The fine drizzle clung to the ends of her hair like a bridal veil.

.....to the furnace-like temperatures of the India plains in the first book of Albion’s Millennium: 

The horizon was already blurry with heat and each step of his horse's hooves kicked up a puff of terracotta-coloured earth. He rode past scrubby bushes with leaves caked in red dust, springing out of the bare rock of the ridges that broke the surface of the plain. Ahead of him, swirls of dusts would arise and sink, stirred up by nothing that was visible to the naked eye. In the distance, he could just see the hazy outlines of the great swathes of rock of the Amarapuna Hills like a row of sleeping elephants, their hides ranging from grey to dun to ochre and then to almost amber as the sun slowly encroached across them. Vultures circled around high above on some bare wisp of breeze that could not be felt at ground level. Makepeace felt sweat pool inside his hat and roll down his back and soak into the waistband of his jodhpurs. There were dark patches on his horse's hide. The cicadas were so loud it seemed like the earth itself was making noise, a hissing and rattling that crescendoed to the pitch of a scream before subsiding only to begin all over again.

But only in Tahiti in the rainy season have I ever experienced both kinds of weather in the exact same place and time – scorching heat, soup-like humidity, and then torrential, monsoon-like rain that felt both hot and cold on the skin. Thus did the extremes of my two Midatlantic climates come together with a vengeance in the far reaches of the South Pacific. 

1 comment:

  1. Lovely writing, my dear! And don't forget the wonderful prose poem to fog in Bleak House. Also, if you haven't read Keith Richards' Life, his childhood neighborhood reminds one of Pip's terrain.