Review: Emergency Weather

Reviewed by Greg Fleming

‘The devastating results of climate change are clear and obvious - but how does a writer, let alone a writer slash activist, fashion a compelling thriller from the subject?’

On the day I received Emergency Weather, the first thriller from climate change activist Tim Jones, Queenstown was under a state of emergency after experiencing the heaviest rainfall in nearly 25 years, while other parts of the country sweltered in record-breaking Spring temperatures - as if we needed further reminders of the effects of climate change after Cyclone Gabrielle (mentioned briefly here) and the Auckland Anniversary Day floods.

The devastating results of climate change are clear and obvious - but how does a writer, let alone a writer slash activist, fashion a compelling thriller from the subject? One imagines most readers who pick this up are already knowledgeable around the subject and are likely to be on the side of science so the danger is of a writer “preaching to the converted.”

The topic also drove Kirsten McDougall’s excellent thriller She’s a Killer last year. McDougall took a dystopian approach and populated it with jaded, larger-than-life characters, some of whom had some nifty martial arts moves.  In contrast Jones writes a much more traditional character-driven novel that takes place in near-future Wellington with the Beehive playing a vital part in the exciting final chapters.

Jones, who was awarded the NZSA Janet Frame Award for literature in 2010, writes compellingly from the perspective of three lead characters: a teenage Māori boy from the East coast, a newly widowed farmer’s wife from Otago and a climate scientist from the capital who is asked to contribute to a Ministerial Inquiry. The widow’s brother-in-law just happens to be the Minister of Resilience, whose job it is to prepare and respond to the challenges of climate change.

Jones resists the easy option of presenting him as a villain, instead delving into his family life and that of the widow’s fraught relationship with her mother-in-law (which, strangely enough, I found to be one of the highlights of the book because Jones captures the decades-long dysfunctional relationship between the two women with real skill).

In these three character’s strands Jones tackles a raft of contemporary social and political issues including race, patriarchy, relationships and greenwashing. The home of the teenage boy is caught in a landslide; the suicide of her farmer husband because of financial difficulties opens a new lease of life for the widow and Stephanie, the climate scientist whose reports and recommendations are buried with ‘full honours as a valuable contribution to the policymaking process,’ is tiring of the apathy of both her friends and society around the subject. She’s also doubting her own commitment to the cause, ‘...she had come to realise that nobody wanted change: not the Government, not the public…. And most of all, not her. She wanted to live in her comfortable suburb while she still could…’

Jones has clearly been around a lot of reports and politicians, people in power who say the right things but do very little - and occasionally we’re unsure if it’s his voice or that of his character we’re reading. Passages like this:

 ‘Unlike an earthquake, where the aftershocks would eventually taper away, the hammer blows of climate change would keep coming, one after another, harder and harder, society’s ability to respond declining as each blow built on the last.’

But these lapses are few and far between - and forgivable - thanks to the power of the narrative and the timeliness of the subject matter.

Reviewed by Greg Fleming