The High House by Jessie Greengrass

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The High House by Jessie Greengrass

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Alex Merrick
Reviewed by Alex Merrick
Summary: The best time to write a book about climate change was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Jessie Greengrass writes a passionate novel about survival both before and during the climate crisis. Her language is filled with care and anger for humanity and the awesome and destructive power of nature.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 252 Date: April 2021
Publisher: Swift Press
ISBN: 978-1800750074

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Charles Darwin taught that all living matter evolved to pass on its genetic material with the implied belief that your progeny will then pass on theirs. However, that train of thought is slowly seems to have fallen out of favour. Today's young generation are discovering that their parents and their parents' parents did not seem to think that far ahead. Or they did think that far ahead and thought "it's not my problem" or "there's nothing I can do". Raising a child and living in a world on the precipice of catastrophe is what drives The High House by Jessie Greengrass. This is not a science-fiction novel. This is our reality. This is the life our children and their children will have to live.

The High House is set in and around the titular High House positioned in a non-descript village that could be nestled almost anywhere on the British coast. It is an Edenic oasis nestled within the maelstrom of the climate crisis. The four main characters weathering this future are Sally, a local, and her grandfather, Grandy, Caro, whose holiday home it is and Pauly, her young half-brother. The novel flits between their lives prior to them moving to The High House and once they had settled in to weather the storm.

It is not a happy novel nor is it nice. From the beginning, it highlights what life is like with the knowledge that our world has no future. Francesca, Caro's stepmother and Pauly's mother, is an environmental activist. She leaves for weeks at a time persuading both governments and corporations to do something to stop the slow descent into catastrophe. Greengrass writes each character beautifully so the lack of emotion Francesca shows to her family is almost admirable. She has a greater purpose. Francesca states They act as though it's a myth to frighten them… instead of the imminently coming end of our fucking planet. The existential threat of the climate crisis can overshadow your life and make it difficult to think of a future. Caro believes the only way to soldier on is to hav[e] our minds in two places at once, of seeing two futures – that ordinary one of summer holidays and new school terms… and the other one, the long and empty one we spoke about in hypotheticals, or didn't speak about at all. Greengrass believes that the only way to survive nowadays is in ignorance. We watch Planet Earth, documentaries about the meat industry and recycle and endeavour to ignore the future we are erasing for our children.

Children and youth, in general, are the backbone of The High House. Pauly is born and raised as the novel progresses. Some people argue that having children nowadays is selfish because humans have the largest carbon footprint and that your child is more than likely going to be born and potentially live their life as a survivor. They will have to live in whatever future is left for them. However, Greengrass writes that children can be a pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try to protect what she had found to love. Children can create a newfound sense of purpose and change our perspective of life, as we are no longer just living for our own future but for theirs. We need to build a better Earth, one that is still habitable, for them.

As I mentioned previously, The High House is not a nice book, However, it is beautiful. Greengrass writes nature with reverence. Her use of imagery with nature creates a real sense of it being a living being, from its water [that] fell in long ropes through the air to the river [that] chafed at the cuts made to hold it back. It is against this living being that our main characters attempt to eke out an existence. They have survived and are managing to live in this post-apocalyptic world; they are surviving the climate crisis. Jessie Greengrass isn't celebrating the fact they are alive. The High House may very well be their ark but there isn't an olive branch or Mount Ararat as a sign that the worst is over. They are alive and that's all they can hope for.

The High House is a great illustration of humanity's need for survival. However, it shows this need, or as Darwin would say, this biological imperative, as both something to strive for, and as a curse. At this moment in time, children represent both the future and the destruction of it. Greengrass' novel is a beautifully written and compelling warning. If we continue down this path, our children will be left surviving. They will never get to live. A report by the Public Accounts Committee states UK ministers have no plan to meet climate change targets. Our future does not just lie in the government's hands, we can all play a part. Eat less meat. Buy local produce. Vote for parties with strong and diverse climate policies. Drive less. Don't use single use plastics. Plant a tree. Write to your local representative. The clock is ticking.

If you want to read similar books, read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg]] and, one of the original environmental activist books, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

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