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Jessie Greengrass

6th December 2023

Our final event of the year offered the packed room a topical and stimulating evening, with Keith in discussion with Jessie Greengrass about her book The High House (2021). The book is set in the near future, and deals with an evolving environmental disaster. The house of the title is set above the rising floods, as four people shelter from an ongoing calamity, with limited supplies and limited means of survival, surrounded by the rising water. 

Jessie talked about her book and read several extracts, giving us a flavour of the story and its poetic, descriptive language. She talked about what inspired the book. Her starting point was around climate change, coastal landscapes and our complacency, assuming ‘We have the right to luck and power’. She gathered stories about past events, such as the North Sea floods of 1953, and the story gradually emerged. The setting is a mix of coastal Suffolk, with the history of Dunwich being enveloped by the sea, and her home area of Northumberland, where changes are more gradual but can still be seen. Storms always occurred, but more so now. At what point do you say it is a crisis?

She talks about the nuclear fears of the sixties and seventies, where calamity could happen at the press of a button. It is different now: there is no button. Humans are not in control and things are slowly unravelling.

In researching the novel, Jessie looked at the practicalities of survival. How can individuals survive when the hinterland and infrastructure has been swept away. How can they sustain themselves, provide food, clothing and shelter. By the end of the book the calamity has not ended, the survivors are just hanging on and the future is unknown. Keith pointed to the tension in the book between global events, where the individual is powerless, and the particular, small everyday things that go on, despite what is happening outside. 

Jessie talked briefly about her next book, which will be set in Lindisfarne. Again, the sea features strongly. The coast exercises an enormous influence on her. Lindisfarne, a tidal island, has a rhythm of being open and closed. When the tide comes in you are shut in, and you become attuned to the different sounds of the sea. She describes the sea almost as a living creature that you have to be very wary of: ‘You can’t overcome the sea. You can’t forget that it has its own moods’. The new book will be a family history of two sisters and will touch on how  events in childhood continue to reverberate. And what is happening now will have an effect later.

It was a fascinating and interesting evening. Summing up, Keith reminded us that fiction allows us to know what it is to be alive wherever we are, whatever the circumstances.

Dymphna (Dee) Crowe


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