Making a new author discovery is both wonderful and anxiety inducing. Having adored the first book of theirs you came across, and knowing very little of their reputation or oeuvre, how can you approach their work for a second time with anything other than trepidation?! I need not have been worried about Heat Lightning, however; it is just as magnificent as Morning Shows the Day and left me once again surprised that Helen Hull has fallen into that terrible black hole entitled ‘mid century woman novelist’, where she has the excellent company of too many others who are equally undeserving to be consigned to such a dark and impenetrable fate.
I digress. Heat Lightning is set over a scorching week in a sleepy, faded Midwestern town. Amy Norton has come back to stay with her parents and take a ‘rest’ from her busy life in New York, but little do her family know that their glamorous and successful daughter is really running from a marriage that is falling apart and a life that does not make her happy. Hoping for a chance to get some peace and clarity, Amy has returned to the fold of the Westover clan, the most prominent family in this once prosperous farming community. However, times have changed since she has been gone and her sprawling family is splitting at the seams. Amy’s restful holiday becomes anything but as she finds herself drawn into the complicated affairs of her uncles, aunts and cousins, and rather than escape her own difficulties, she realises she must face them, and the flaws in her personality and approach to life that have contributed to bringing them about.
This is a novel about so many things, so perfectly expressed. It touches at the core of life, bringing flashes of illumination to the hidden questions that run, dormant but pulsing, under the surface of our existence. What is it that holds families together, when we are all such a diverse pool of different personalities with a multitude of needs and desires that are usually at odds with those of others? Can we ever really understand the people our parents are, separate from their relationship to us, and would we want to if we could? How do we learn to grow into the people we need to become in order to cope with the responsibilities of our adult lives? And how much do we really know about the people we love the most; the lives they have lived before we came into them, the secret vulnerabilities and fears that haunt them? Life, our pasts, love, and our relationships with one another are so fraught with difficulty and confusion and misunderstanding that at times we can find ourselves lost in the midst of our own existence, fighting to work out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. Who can we turn to, and where do we look for answers? Amy has run home to look for hers, in the comforting surroundings of her mother’s living room and her grandmother’s porch, and over the course of what will be a tumultuous, stormy week, she will see flashes of inspiration in the words and actions of those who raised her, giving her just enough light to see the way forward.
Helen Hull’s writing is exquisite, evocative, ripe for the picking; every line is beautifully crafted, every character teeming with life. She effortlessly paints a picture of a dappled, sun bleached town filled with clapboard houses and grey dust, peopled by housewives in printed calico and sulky teenagers quivering with frustration. As her characters clash and struggle, so does the world outside of them, as the depression hits and all financial security is lost. Amy, come from the big city to shelter in this backwater, comes to realise that there is no escape from the realities of life; they are just as prominent in the rural Midwest as they are in Midtown. This sort of domestic, ‘small town’ tale is woefully underappreciated by the literary establishment; like Dorothy Whipple, Helen Hull’s perception, her clarity of expression and her ability to tease out the quiet, unspoken thoughts and fears that ripple under the surface of each of our lives is magnificent. Like it or not, most of our lives are lived out in our homes, amongst the people we are related to, and it is within this domestic arena that the real drama and struggle and flight of life reigns supreme. It takes true skill to rivet the heart and mind while remaining within the four walls of the family home, and I can’t praise Hull’s abilities enough. I’m ready for a Helen Hull revival! Who’s with me?!