Fierce attachments in Jessie Greengrass’s The High House

How a family copes with climate change disaster

May 05, 2021
Author Jessie Greengrass Credit: Andrew Eaton/Alamy
Author Jessie Greengrass Credit: Andrew Eaton/Alamy

Jessie Greengrass’s first novel Sight (2018) was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The narrator of that experimental book wove readings about major developments in medical history into her own decision to have a child.

Greengrass’s second novel, TheHigh House, is part of the recent flowering of literary fiction by women exploring the climate crisis that includes Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, as well as Weather by Jenny Offill and Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee.

Although TheHigh House is a story of familial bonds, the split narrative doesn’t initially make it easy to work out who is related to who. In the opening sections two women—Caro and Sally—recount their separate childhoods. Both are looking back to their early lives from the vantage point of a post-apocalyptic scenario, which has seen them form a makeshift family living at the High House, alongside Caro’s younger stepbrother Pauly, son of a climate scientist.

Pauly was only four years old when devastating floods left him and Caro stranded. Before his mother died she stocked the High House as an “ark,” which could sustain them when the floods hit. There is an orchard, a barn full of medical supplies, a tide pool and a mill. They are careful with their resources. Sally reflects: “we must think always about whether the work is worth the reward—food which takes more energy to grow than it can return is worse than a waste.”

This feels like a far more conventional work than Greengrass’s first novel. For example, unlike in Sight, here the climate scientist has no qualms about having Pauly, even while she is sure the end of the planet is imminent. She reasons that she is making 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.”

There is tenderness here in the fierce attachments between characters and profundity in the idea that “all we can do is choose who we will save.” It is nonetheless an often muddy novel and the writing is sometimes less than arresting.

The High House by Jessie Greengrass (Swift, £14.99)