REVIEWED BY ANDREW BURTON
Jessie Greengrass (Swift Press: 2022)
Jessie Greengrass’s second novel The High House is haunting, unsettling and utterly compelling.
It imagines a near future dystopian Britain which is suffering the effects of extreme weather events caused by global warming. The land is flooded, crops are blighted, and society is on the brink of collapse. Caro and her younger half-brother Pauly escape London to the relative safety of a property on a hill above a village in a county which feels very much like Suffolk, even though it is never quite named. They go to the titular high house, a place which Caro’s father and climate activist stepmother Francesca have prepared for them as a refuge in the event of climate chaos.
Caro and Pauly find the high house occupied by a young local girl called Sally and her grandfather, affectionately referred to as Grandy. Caro and Pauly have lost their parents in an extreme weather event while working abroad and this extreme weather is now manifesting itself throughout the UK too. Grandy is a wise man of the land, always able to take the long view and making the most of a difficult lot. Sally spars with Caro, pitting rural against urban values.
One of the things that makes The High House so memorable is how Greengrass manages to show each of the characters, in their own way, attempting to deal not only with the physical and practical challenges of the deep adaptation needed to address climate breakdown but also with the psychological ones. At one point, for example, Caro muses that they were all learning to have their minds ‘...in two places at once, of seeing two futures—that ordinary one of summer holidays and new school terms, of Christmases and birthdays and bank accounts in an endless round, and the other one, the long and empty one we spoke about in hypotheticals, or didn’t speak about at all...The unexalted, tedious familiarity of our daily lives would keep us safe, we thought...’ The psychological complexity of this interior double life, of clinging to the illusory safety of daily routines in the face of existential climate threats, is not the least of this quietly devastating novel’s achievements.
As resonant and disturbing as Meg Rossof’s How We Live Now (2004) and in conversation with contemporary ‘cli-fi’ novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s celebrated Flight Behavior (sic.) (2012), The High House moves beyond the clichés of the survivalist trope to offer a psychologically complex and emotionally immersive mediation on facing the unimaginable.
Jessie Greengrass will be talking to Suffolk Book League at an event on Wednesday 6th December 2023.
You can buy tickets here: https://www.suffolkbookleague.org/events-1/jessie-greengrass