Book Review: THE HIGH HOUSE by Jessie Greengrass

While Jessie Greengrass’s remarkable novel The High House is set primarily in a grim future, this is not purely dystopian fiction—in fact, it feels far more contemporary, like a novel of our imminent reality. The High House doesn’t depict a world completely transformed by climate change as much as it reveals our world—a world slowly and inevitably ravaged as we humans collectively watch it happen and do nothing about it.

Francesca, a climate scientist and environmental activist, mother to Pauly, and stepmother to Caro, has been trying in vain to get the world to listen. She knows what is coming and is planning for it; while no one is listening to her warnings, at least not closely enough to take action, she can, at least, take the necessary steps to save her family.

And this is what the titular high house is: an eventual refuge for Pauly and Caro, as well as caretakers Sally and her grandfather, Grandy, who are from the nearby village and are hired by Francesca to take care of the high house after Grandy suffers a broken hip and Sally leaves college to care for him. 

Set in the UK, the novel opens post-disaster and goes back and forth in time, piecing together, in the voices of Caro, Sally, and Pauly, what happens to the two families—Francesca, Caro’s father, and Pauly; and Sally and Grandy—and how the four form a family of their own. Before meeting at the high house, Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy don’t even know each other; afterward, Sally reflects, they come together into “a knot. We cling. Each of us knows, at all times, where the others are, in the same way that we always know what time it is, telling it from some combination of light and shadow and our bones.” They become, like many families, protectors of one another, despite the inevitable conflicts of living together under such stressful circumstances.

The fate of Francesca and Caro’s father is intertwined with the increasingly catastrophic weather, and in the last of their time together, Caro sees more of Francesca in the news than at home. In a speech Caro watches online, Francesca says, “We must recognize that we are being given a final warning—because if we fail to do so, if we fail to act, the consequences will surpass anything we have previously seen, and we will have missed our chance”—and while at home, Francesca is even more harsh. Seeing visitors enjoying the beach, she is appalled, saying, “They act as though it’s a myth to frighten them, instead of the imminently coming end of our fucking planet.” After a session of family therapy, Francesca says that Pauly’s anxiety “is a perfectly reasonable response to what we are living through.” When Pauly and Caro’s father says of Pauly, “We have to at least try to believe that he will have the chance to live an ordinary life,” Francesca counters with, “We have to do no such thing.” She is admirably unsparing in her commitment to forecasting the doom to come—and this, in the end, is what saves Pauly and Caro, as well as Sally and Grandy.

Caro, who is fourteen when Pauly is born, feels that he makes their family whole: “As a three we were unbalanced, but the baby’s weight had evened out the scales.” Still, the family splinters as Francesca, when she is not traveling to speak about the climate, spends more time at the high house (along with Caro and Pauly’s father, who feels like a very minor character in the novel), preparing for what’s to come, outfitting it with compostable toilets, a two-hundred-year generator, a garden, and loads of supplies, including shoes and clothing for Pauly to grow into, a boat which they will not use until the waterline irreversibly shifts—and morphine.

By the time Caro turns eighteen, she has left school and has no plans; she watches as her life stretches “empty ahead,” as hills become islands and city centers drown. Daffodils appear in the park in December; February brings hot summer days. Bees, birds, and grasshoppers are nowhere to be heard.

Meanwhile, Sally had already known about Francesca through her involvement in an ecological society at her university when she meets her in person through Grandy. Francesca listens closely to Grandy’s stories of the slow but inexorable destruction of the region, storm by storm—but of course, the devastation isn’t only local; news comes from around the world of earthquakes, fire, flood, and drought. Still, it’s not enough to galvanize anyone into change: “Each time people gave money, for a while, and then there was something else, and the last thing was forgotten by all except those who, presumably, still lived inside it.” Sally’s realization that humans are all in this together comes only after they’re caught up in it: “We had been watching people drown for years, and the only difference was that before they had always been a long way off from us … disaster would only come when it had our own faces on it—and now, here it was.”

Each survivor faces challenges, both physical and emotional, but Sally notes, “We don’t talk about what we have lost.” They are always cold or hungry or both, aging fast from hard work, hunger, and worry. Pauly, who now has two mother figures in both Caro and Sally, was so young when he arrived at the high house that he barely remembers what the world had been like. Yet he still recognizes his losses, for example, that he will never shop for clothes but will instead wear what Francesca had picked out for him and stored away for each new stage of his life. “I can’t imagine a world in which I had a choice.” 

The High House is not a happy novel with a happy ending, but it is an important and beautiful novel that captures this moment in time—as well as what could be our next moments if we do not change our current trajectory in regard to climate change. Despite its seeming predictability, there’s plenty of tension and drama, and the writing is so lovely and the characters so empathetic, it’s impossible not to care about them and follow them through the pages. Though the book is fiction, The High House feels all too real—a gorgeous novel, with an unmistakable call to action for us all. 

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