I read Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel Sight when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018, so when the ARC for The High House, Greengrass’s latest novel slated to be published on the 4th of January 2022, came through the mail, I was curious. I figured I’d read a couple of pages, and that would be that until I picked it up again closer to the publication date, but I thought wrong! I was spellbound by it from the first page, and in fact, I would have finished it in a single sitting had I not started it in the middle of the night! The High House is nothing like Sight – it is a dystopian novel centered around climate change, and this time around, the story truly resonated with me! For those who haven’t read Sight, it is a story about motherhood, written while the author was expecting her first child. Not being a mother myself, and without a baby on the horizon, Sight didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time. But now, I’m contemplating motherhood, even though the effect climate change will have on my child’s life continues to weigh on me, so I appreciated Greengrass for creating Francesca, a mother who shared my fears, in her new novel.
A few months after Francesca gave birth to her son, Pauly, an island in the Pacific is submerged, making her realize the tipping point of global warming will come much earlier than anticipated. She is a leading climate scientist and an environmental activist, so from that day onward until her death a few years after, Francesca goes around the world sounding alarm bells and trying to persuade the world leaders’ to take action. Even though she never gives up on her mission, perhaps in her heart she already knew her efforts are futile, for she has begun converting the High House, a remote sanctuary she had inherited from an uncle, into a haven for Pauly and Caro, her stepdaughter, when the end comes. This aptly named High House is perched on a cliff on the East coast of England, and Francesca goes on to add a mill, a tide pool that powers a water-driven generator, a vegetable patch, and an apple orchard on its gardens. She also stocks the barn with various provisions and buys a boat (although it seems ridiculous at the time because the house is nowhere near water), before she hires Grandy, a local elderly man with a vast knowledge of the area and homesteading, and Sally, his granddaughter, to be the house’s, and one day her children’s, live-in caretakers. When Caro and Pauly finally arrive in the High House after Francesca and their father perish in a sudden storm in Florida, Grandy must teach them to live off the land in the face of increasingly unpredictable weather events.
The High House is one of the most poignant novels I read in a while. Francesca is long dead by the time the novel opens up, yet, her presence is deeply felt because each of the inhabitants is alive and (somewhat) safe – in a world that has already become dire to live in – because of Francesca’s meticulous planning. The story is narrated by Sally and Caro mostly, and to a lesser extent by Pauly, so it is through them that we learn about Francesca and the ensuing climate chaos. Among the themes explored, parenthood and sacrifice definitely struck a chord with me. From Caro’s recounting, we learn Francesca and their father – an unnamed professor who had joined his wife in her missions – were largely absent parents. Caro, a teenager at the time, knew of Francesca’s efforts to save the environment and at-risk populations and was not enamored with Francesca the way media/ environmental activists were, for she was weary of Francesca’s constant leaving. Although Caro adores Pauly, the psychological strain of being left to raise Pauly from a young age is evident in her. It makes Caro less generous towards Francesca – Caro had always thought Francesca put “the hypothetical, general needs of a population above the real and specific ones of her family” and assumed whenever Francesca visited the High House, it had been to rest, without knowing Francesca was building an ark for them. But as a reader, who also had access to Sally’s perspective to complete the picture, I felt great sympathy towards Francesca. Francesca never meant to live in the High House, and in her, I saw the depth of a mother’s love as she tried her best to save who she loved the most.
The ecological catastrophes described sound very familiar because we all have been made aware of them for some time now. Yet the way Greengrass writes about dwindling insect populations, rising tides, sinking lands, and the disappearance of seasons had a haunting effect on me. At the High House, Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy aren’t entirely safe from the cataclysmic weather events either – Francesca had done her best to prepare them, but there are problems even she couldn’t have foreseen, like the trade-off between food and effort they will have to take into consideration as the situation deteriorates.
As one would expect from a novel from the cli-fi genre, the psychological impact of imminent threats is realistically portrayed in The High House. This adds to the eerie, somber atmosphere, and the novel’s reflection on survivors’ guilt and what it means to be the last few people alive felt deeply earnest. I wouldn’t hesitate to call The High House an important book in our time, despite some minor quibbles. Early on in the novel, soon after Francesca gave birth to Pauly, Caro recalls Francesca’s colleagues calling her and accusing her of having given up – they think Pauly is “an admission of defeat.” But Caro deems “it was a kind of furious defiance that had led [Francesca] to have a child, despite all she believed about the future – a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love.” If it was Francesca’s reasoning, it is indeed noble, but I thought it was disingenuous. For me, it is inconceivable that Francesca would have consciously tied her baby’s fate to the world – which she, by herself, had no control over. It is too much of a gamble. I felt it was more likely that Francesca hoped and believed Pauly would be spared of all the horrors the end will bring in…
Note: Many thanks to Scribner for sending me an ARC of The High House.