‘Grass grows in tufts from walls. Silt covers gardens. Crabs run across broken cobbles of the road.’ Amid a plethora of sci-fi climate change novels and literary offerings, Baya Simons tries to make sense of Jessie Greengrass’ The High House, finding an eerie novel that fails to land.
In 2005, the academic and nature writer Robert MacFarlane wrote an op-ed for the Guardian criticising the lack of fiction about climate change. ‘Where is the creative response to what Sir David King, the government’s Chief scientific advisor, has famously described as ‘the most severe problem faced by the world?’ he asked. He compared it to the comparative abundance of writing in response to another ‘eschatological threat of the past half century’ – nuclear. We need writing that deals with climate change, he argued, in order to ‘induce a gut feeling of fear’ and so that ‘the causes and consequences of climate change can be debated, sensed, and communicated’.
In the 16 years since MacFarlane’s criticism, the genre of ‘climate fiction’ – or as blogger Dan Bloom abbreviated it ‘cli-fi’ – has boomed. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl imagined post-apocalypse scenarios, in the US and in 22nd century Bangkok respectively, while Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy imagined a future world ravaged by unregulated capitalist corporations, leaving only a handful of survivors amongst a population of genetically engineered hybrid animals. Others have written about the present day: Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel Solar followed a physics professor trying to develop cheap renewable energy, while Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver explored the consequences of a seemingly minute change in our ecosystem, and Jenny Offil’s fragmented novel Weather explored the daily anxiety of the crisis through the lens of a librarian living in California. Some of these works have been deemed literary. Others have been relegated to the category of ‘genre fiction’.
Catastrophic weather events are becoming more frequent in the news cycle and the village is slowly emptying as residents learn that the nearby river will soon burst its banks
Jessie Greengrass’s The High House represents another attempt to write a literary novel about climate change. It follows her richly layered debut novel Sight and an excellent collection of short stories, which addressed climate change in its titular story about the extinction of the Great auk. The High House is set in an East Anglian coastal fishing village in a near-distant future. Catastrophic weather events are becoming more frequent in the news cycle and the village is slowly emptying as residents learn that the nearby river will soon burst its banks. Switching between post and pre-flood, the novel tells the story of four characters and how they came to survive ‘the flood’.
Greengrass opens in the eerie peace of the aftermath: ‘grass grows in tufts from walls. Silt covers gardens. Crabs run across broken cobbles of the road.’ The survivors are now alone in the village, safe in their house set high above the flow of water. The house, we learn, was left to Francesca, a high profile climate activist, by an uncle. When she saw that the worst was coming, she began turning the house into an ‘ark’, stocking it with medical supplies, planting a vegetable garden and building a water-powered generator, in order to keep her only child, Pauly, alive after the flood. To take care of the house, Francesca has enlisted her depressive step daughter Caro, the village gardener Grandy and his pragmatic granddaughter, Sally. But Francesca is now dead, and the four caretakers live alone.
Her tone doesn’t shift too far from this pitch, remaining in a somewhat unnatural register of both furious and lyrical
The narrative moves between the High House and earlier events, such as Caro’s childhood, where holidays were spent at the High House with her father and Francesca. Francesca is serious, bright and angry – furious about the failure of her family, and the wider world, to take the situation seriously. ‘How can they stand to enjoy it, the weather?... they act as though it’s a myth to frighten them... instead of the imminently coming end of our fucking planet’ Her tone doesn’t shift too far from this pitch, remaining in a somewhat unnatural register of both furious and lyrical. This single note turns her into more of a device than a character, there to vocalise the reality of the crisis.
As the catastrophic weather events appearing on the news become more frequent and with increasingly little warning, Francesca amps up her campaigning. Then one day, the children, Caro and Pauly, get a call from Francesca in the States; she tells them to leave their city home and go to the High House. Shortly afterwards, Caro sees a TV broadcast showing the Florida hotel where her parents had been staying ravaged by a hurricane that had been building in the Carribean. Here, the narrative switches to Sally, a teenager of a similar age to Caro, and not particularly distinguishable in voice, who, along with her grandfather, Francesca has enlisted to take care of the house. The narratives meet when Caro, Grandy, Sally and Pauly, settle into life together. They sense the storm coming, and spend their days preparing: gardening, cooking, cleaning and swimming in the sea. The only glimpses of an outside world come from an occasional reference to the news, which shows caravans parked along the motorway, or people huddled in tents. The flood eventually comes and with it a surge of bathos, as they realise that ‘we aren’t really saved. We are only the last ones, waiting.’
The world of the novel resembles that of an ecologically-minded farming community: it’s isolated and hard-going, but ultimately gratifying and livable
Like the middle class California of Offill’s Weather, Greengrass’ south-coast, second home setting engages with what will happen to the more economically and – as in the ‘High’ of the title – geographically privileged. But Greengrass struggles to build a narrative within the safety of this position. The world of the novel resembles that of an ecologically-minded farming community: it’s isolated and hard-going, but ultimately gratifying and livable. She describes the gratifications of near self-sufficiency, of stoking the fire in the morning and making jam from the gooseberry bush. ‘There are moments when I lift potatoes and am filled with satisfaction,’ Sally says, ‘the way we waste nothing that might be useful, turning the earth and digging it through with compost which we have made. These are the moments that we cling to.’