From sweaty to sultry: why fiction loves a heatwave

Hot weather is a narrative device as old as time, but scenes of the stickiest season are taking on ominous new undertones in modern fiction. Lauren Bravo explores how literature’s love affair with the long, hot summer is changing.

Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

"I love England in a heat wave," declares Leon Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. "It's a different country. All the rules change."

Not just England, but anywhere temperatures soar and stories are told. Which is perhaps why writers love hot weather so much. There’s something about that lawlessness and sun-addled freedom, baked into a book – and doubly so if a little sand falls out from between the pages.

In fact heatwave fiction could be its own sub-genre, with classics such as L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between and Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave among its ranks. From “the mad blood stirring” as the sun beat down on Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets, to Normal People’s Connell and Marianne sharing ice lollies on a sticky day, there’s something about heat that accelerates a story like a hothouse flower.

'To swelter is to feel oppressed – cross, put-out and harassed'

“The weather really is a mind-altering phenomenon: we find we are not quite ourselves. Or hidden selves come flashing out,” says Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherland: Writers and artists under English skies. “The high pressure bears in on us: we all feel the intensity of the moment. And yet that converges with languor and drowsiness. It’s a fascinating and sometimes dangerous combination.”

“To swelter is to feel oppressed – cross, put-out and harassed,” agrees the author Ayisha Malik. “It’s the simplest way to create conflict and tension without even introducing a character.” Her third novel, This Green and Pleasant Land, the story of accountant Bilal Hasham and his attempt to build a mosque in his sleepy English village, opens on a stifling August day and a parish council meeting in which clammy palms and prickly tempers abound.

“That feeling of being on the edge, while also creating a deep sense of ennui, is the kind of contradiction that makes it feel like anything might happen,” she says. “Somehow, somewhere, someone is going to lose their sh*t.”

In Kate Riordan's The Heatwave, the overbearing heat of a Provence summer almost plays its own chaotic character, pushing the tension of the novel towards its climax.

But literary heat isn’t always claustrophobic; it can also be an escape.

I have a vivid memory of reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in the weeks after my university finals, sprawled on dry grass in a north London park while the sun beat down, and my summer stretched on towards an uncertain horizon.

“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month,” go those soporific opening lines. “The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.”

Come to think of it, every book I remember reading that summer was suffused with heat. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Ali Smith’s The Accidentals, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees (“The month of August had turned into a griddle where the days just lay there and sizzled”). After three years of cold, critical academia it felt good to gorge on warm weather stories and do nothing except lie, fatly baffled, in the sun. 

“In heatwaves, characters that are normally policed and watched over are permitted to go free range,” says Vybarr Cregan-Reid, Professor of English & Environmental Humanities at the University of Kent and author of Primate Change: How the world we made is remaking us. His personal favourite of the genre is Barbara Vine crime thriller A Fatal Inversion, which looks back to the legendary British heatwave of 1976. “The setting is essential as the action of the novel turns upon the strict morals of middle-class suburbia melting away.”

Humanity ferments in the heat. People become visceral, bodies betray minds with their baseness.

Humanity ferments in the heat. People become visceral, bodies betray minds with their baseness. Morals loosen along with muscles. Secrets spill out of open windows, buttons come undone. And while in reality we might groan more with perspiration than passion, fictional characters can be far more comfortable getting hot under the collar without so much as a desk fan for relief.

Atonement is a case in point, Cecilia and Robbie’s erotic tension igniting even as the roast potato salad is wilting in the dining room. “What’s so affecting is the contrast between the brief moment of dazzling sunlight and emotional pressure – and the long, long aftermath,” notes Harris. “The dramatic events of a few hot days shape characters for the rest of their lives.”

It isn’t McEwan’s only foray into heatwave-lit. His darkly disturbing 1978 novel The Cement Garden “proposes heat as the new weather of Gothic,” says Harris. “Forget dark winter nights: what’s really disturbing is a baking, exhausted, festering England where flies circle the uncollected rubbish while flesh lures and repels.”

Urban heatwaves have a particular flavour of their own, distinct from meadows and beaches. There’s a different sensory palette, of hot tarmac and aggressive air conditioning, of crowded pavements outside pubs and strangers’ steaming bodies at rush hour. “The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lamp posts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside,” begins Zadie Smith’s NW, capturing the potent blend of heaviness and hedonism that characterises London in August.

And of course, in recent years fictional heatwaves have acquired a new, sinister subtext. “Everyone knows it shouldn't be this hot,” thinks Leah, on NW’s opening page. “Shrivelled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year.” Just as human chaos rules in a heatwave, the natural order of things is tipped off-kilter too.

Novels based around extreme heatwaves are a relatively modern phenomena. “Jane Austen won’t condemn her readers to staying outside for long unless there’s a gently cooling breeze,” points out Alexandra Harris. “But we can be sure that in our overheated future, there’ll be a great many novels taking our temperatures and watching for the point when the weather ‘breaks’ and the lightning strikes.”

For now though, only one thing seems certain. That the moment you finish reading this article, it will probably start raining.

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