As we prepare for another round of wild weather as hurricane season begins in earnest, here are some of the best literary novels we’ve read in which hurricanes and their aftermath serve as a metaphor for fate, chance and bad fortune. They’ve each in their own way helped us ride out a storm or two.
hurricanes in the novel: a metaphor, yes – but for what?
There are a few things we can pretty much count on to occur every year in late August and early September. For example, there will be state fairs. Sunflowers. Sand in our shoes. And as fall follows summer, the first major hurricane of the season usually shows up right about that same time every year. Which caused us to reflect, as we’re watching the news coverage of the first major hurricane this season, about the literature of hurricanes and their aftermath. It’s a rich sub-genre of novels, and while they appear to be just about the weather and just about life in one specific Southern setting, the best of them contain multitudes.
A dreamy romantic might choose to deploy the hurricane in literary fiction as a metaphor for a fresh start in life. The old gets washed away in a ferocious frenzy of wind and water, and what’s left is a chance to start fresh, and perhaps even find true love. Looking at you, Shakespeare and The Tempest.
Of course, many other authors have chosen to leverage the fictional hurricane to represent something much darker: a deadly uncontrollable force that takes the lives and livelihoods of both the guilty and the innocent, and that rarely leaves a clean blank slate behind. Instead, what’s left is a devastating wreck. Out of which the survivors must find a way to rebuild shattered lives. Or not.
We realized that we’ve actually been drawn over the years to novels in which a hurricane is a major plot point. Why? Because the best of them give us a strange kind of hope. Life may unexpectedly knock us sideways (or upside down). We may have done nothing to deserve it, but there we are. Adrift in a sea of mud and misery. So what do we do next? Our favorite literary fiction points us toward an answer.
the 6 best literary novels about hurricanes and their aftermath
Here’s a short selection of novels we’ve read and loved that use the arrival of a hurricane as a metaphor and catalyst. These are meditations on lives upended. About losing control, losing loved ones, homes, and illusions. And what it takes to survive – and even thrive – in the aftermath.
1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is arguably the O.G. of hurricane novels. Published in 1937, it’s the best-known novel from one of the brightest luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. After being initially disparaged and dismissed by male reviewers, the work is now taught in schools the world over as an example of gorgeous prose, compelling characterizations and a gripping plot.
Janie is a strong, intelligent young Black woman determined to make her way in the world. After two disastrous marriages, she begins a love affair with Tea Cake, a younger man who treats her with respect. The relationship seems to fulfill all of her dreams and desires for a good and meaningful life. But a hurricane is coming, and it neither knows nor cares about human happiness. The title of the book is a statement of Janie’s hopes and her heartfelt desire to believe that a benign deity watches over her and her loved ones, even in the midst of the storm. And ultimately, it’s this faith that grants her peace.
2. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.
In Salvage the Bones, winner of a National Book Award, we see the world of the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi through the eyes of a pregnant young Black teenager caught in a storm. And that’s before Hurricane Katrina hits. Over the course of 12 days, we see the fates of 15-year old Esch, her three brothers and their hard-drinking and often absent father unfold against the backdrop of a catastrophic natural disaster. The hurricane is a wild, unpredictable force – made worse by substandard public infrastructure and political indifference for the poor and marginalized. Can they find ways to rely on each other at a time when nothing else is stable?
3. Hurricane Girl by Marcy Dermansky.
The ostensibly lighthearted novel Hurricane Girl is not so much about a hurricane as it is about what happens when catastrophe strikes and we’re forced to build a new life in a new place, whether we like it or not. How we respond when forced to define what a good life actually means to us, and how hard we’re willing to work to build one from scratch. Again, whether we like it or not.
Thirty-two year old Allison had just arrived in North Carolina after leaving her abusive movie producer boyfriend behind in LA, found a charming home and gotten in some good swims in the Atlantic. But then a Cat-3 hurricane levels her new home. And a bad decision to go home with the wrong man leaves her with a massive head injury. She manages to get home to New Jersey, where her mother and her long-ago high school friend – who’s now a handsome brain surgeon – help her begin to mend. But does she really love him, even though he saved her life? Or does she just want ongoing access to his pool?
The wry humor masks an undercurrent of true pain and loss that makes this a fascinating read. And an instructive modern fable for our time.
4. None of this Would Have Happened if Prince Were Still Alive by Carolyn Prusa.
None of this Would Have Happened . . . appears to be a lighthearted romp about an upper middle class Savannah family dealing with a coming Cat-3 storm. But like any good hurricane novel, it’s about much, much more. As she’s packing up kids, a hamster and enough snacks to last through the entire drive to higher ground, a mom discovers her husband in flagrante delicto. So she leaves town without him. And without her stubborn mother, who’s unwilling to leave her home and plans to ride out the storm.
Did we mention her tech-bro boss thinks she’s still in the office, hard at work on his next big project?
What ensues is a heroine’s journey. Should she remain with her kids in the safe shelter of her friend’s house? Or return to Savannah to pry her mother out of her home by any means necessary? Should she start divorce proceedings? Or forgive her wayward husband? And perhaps most importantly: what would Prince do?
It’s a wrenchingly accurate look at what it takes to be a working mother and wife in the middle of that storm we call life. And yes, as in so many other circumstances, the music of Prince turns out to be exactly what we need to discover our truth.
5. The Displacements by Bruce Holsinger.
Rounding out our list of great novels that employ a hurricane as a metaphor is The Displacements, a riveting novel about the seemingly intractable problems of climate change and race relations in America. Oh, and it also illuminates the knotty issues of white privilege, immigration, class divisions, the opioid crisis and the proper role and function of the Federal government.
September is hurricane season, and this is a fictional account of what happens to several families when a Category 6 hurricane – the most viscous ever seen in recorded history – levels all of Miami Beach and the surrounding communities. Where does one go when everything is lost? And when the very idea of home is obliterated? What happens after the news cycle moves on, but the devastation remains? The literature of hurricanes demands that we think about all of these things and more. And this is a fine entry in the pantheon of fiction meant to make us face hard truths about climate, and race, and the meaning of family.
best literary novels about hurricanes and their aftermath
That’s our personal list of the best literary novels and other fiction that deploy hurricanes in the Southern U.S. and their aftermath as a powerful metaphor and major plot point. Did we miss one of your favorites, dear reader? Grab a book and batten the hatches – ’cause it’s storm season out there.