Guest Review: The High House

the high house

Today it is my pleasure to welcome a guest reviewer to my blog. Peter Wild is the editor and founder of Bookmunch, a book blog I regularly contribute to. He kindly agreed to review The High House for me. I was interested in his take on a book I consider a must read.

The High House by Jessie Greengrass

The world as we know it is going to hell in a handcart (although if the latest opinion polls that demonstrate only 4 in 10 people think the most corrupt Government the UK has ever had is in fact the most corrupt Government the UK has ever had, it’s highly likely that only 4 in 10 people think the world is going to hell in a handcart too). Whether you dabble with the kinds of nonfiction we see from Naomi Klein (On Fire) or David Wallace-Wells (Uninhabitable Earth), watch documentaries a la I Am Greta or This Changes Everything, dip your toe into the waters of dystopian fiction (I Am Monster, Gold Fame Citrus, The Road, Things We Didn’t See Coming) or simply, you know, watch the news – you’ll likely have an idea what I’m talking about. Jessie Greengrass (of An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It and Sight) has contributed to this burgeoning fictional inlet with her latest, The High House.

What we have here is an arresting novel described by Max Porter as being “about the great crisis of our time” but played out in “an unconventional domestic drama performed on an intimate stage.” There are three narrators, Caro and Pauly (brother and sister) and Sally (provisionally a sort of guardian figure for the two children, along with her Grandy, who is the resident handy man and fixer of all things in a small village). Caro and Pauly’s mother Francesca is herself a sort of Naomi Klein figure, given to travelling here, there and everywhere, a Cassandra for the coming doom – but in the midst of her clarion calls she and her husband also work hard to create a sanctuary for her children in a house formerly owned by her uncle. The eponymous high house. Sally and her Grandy are drafted in to help make the place habitable for as far into the future as is humanly possible.

Just as Klein writes about her own children in her nonfiction, so we are told Francesca react to criticisms of her own parenthood with “a kind of furious defiance… a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try and protect what she had found to love.” And yet still there are “moments when the outside world intruded” in a way that seemed “extraordinarily violent”:

“…photographs of people knee-deep in mud, of children lying in rows on mattresses, their eyes huge in their skulls…”

The heart of the book, really, is an attempt to foster “a small survival”, “a way to live which was not notable, which did not aspire but did not, either, take more than it put back, nor push off the cost of enterprise elsewhere, outsourcing, as we often did, our suffering.”

The novel darts back from an ostensible ‘now’, in which Caro, Sally and Pauly are older and have weather travails together, to take us through what led up to the establishment of their home against a backdrop of climatic unrest (“a set of circumstances which could have been prevented, once, but now had gone beyond repair”).

The High House certainly contributes to the sense that any right thinking person has, that we are, in various ways, in a parlous state, that we rely on often corrupt decision makers too busy stuffing their pockets (or decorating their official residences) to actually make a difference in a way that the future of the world might go on to hold them in high esteem for, making the rest of us somewhat helpless in the face of the ask.

Towards the close of the novel, Sally refers to the fact that “more and more of that which we have salvaged is exhausted, or lost, or starts to rot” and Pauly himself wonders what will happen when and if he is the only person left, and this reader wished Greengrass had done more with this. If we had been told the story of what led to the establishment of the High House and had a chance to view the other end, the end of their end, it’s possible The High House would have been exceptional indeed. As it is, it’s a good novel seeking to grapple with (as Max Porter says) the biggest question of our time, and it makes a good fist of things. There is just the slight, niggling feeling at the back of my mind that if the book were more equally weighted between the then and the now – and if the now had more to say than simply “all things tend towards their ruin” – it would be a bigger and bolder read. (One example of a bigger and bolder book would be Jim Crace’s Harvest, which imagines a rural setting far in the future, long after whatever tremors and aftershocks we are to experience as a race have come to an end.)

Peter Wild

Book Review: The High House

the high house

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is not enough to have an ark, if you do not also have the skills to sail it”

This is the third book by Jessie Greengrass that I have read. All have been enjoyed. Her writing just keeps getting better.

The High House is set in the near future. It explores the impact of climate change, particularly rising sea levels. More than that though, it revolves around a small cast of characters skilfully rendered. Few words are wasted on what they look like. What matters is how they feel and react to each other, and how events they must live through shape them.

The story is told from three points of view with chapters headed by their names: Sally, Caro, Pauly. The timeline is non-linear with much of the narrative filling in gaps. Structured in short sections, pace is pitched perfectly to maintain interest and momentum. There is an underlying tension in knowing what is to come.

Caro is raised in London by her father, an academic. When he marries Francesca, a scientist, they spend holidays at the High House. This is a large coastal property left to Francesca by an uncle. Visits cease after baby Pauly is born. Caro, now a teenager, helps care for the child. A respected expert in the field, Francesca is becoming more concerned about the impending climate disaster she can see coming – that the world appears wilfully blind to. She spends increasing amounts of time away from home.

Sally is raised in the village below the High House by her grandfather, Grandy. He has lived there all his life, watching it change from a farming and fishing community to a place filled with holiday homes. Grandy is employed as caretaker by the absent owners. When Francesca decides to make the High House an ultimate refuge for her family, he becomes involved.

Caro is not made party to Francesca’s plans. She feels abandoned, believing her stepmother has chosen work over her son. At the same time she enjoys the role she plays in Pauly’s upbringing. Francesca’s wider concerns bring tension to the home that affects them all.

News reports tell of increasingly unpredictable weather events in other places – the refugees created when floods wreak havoc. Viewer shock is short lived when events feel distant, while they remain okay.

“drone footage of torn buildings and flooded streets which showed the water lying still and calm and deep across places people had thought they owned.”

Sally is unimpressed by Francesca, resenting the attention Grandy pays her as she talks of what is to come. Grandy understands the power of the weather having experienced the lasting impact on his and neighbouring villages of the last great flood.

“-This isn’t going to be like that,
Francesca said.
-There won’t be memorials in church halls. No one is going to make up songs. There will be nothing left.
-Nothing?
I asked, and I felt gleeful, as though I had found the point at last, and now could press it home.
-Or only nothing of yours? People have nothing already. People are dying already. How can a threat to you be an apocalypse when the rest of the world is drowning and it’s only a fucking preamble?”

In London, residents and visitors enjoy the lengthening seasons of warmth and sunshine. Caro takes Pauly to their local park to play, aware of changes to plants and wildlife but not paying attention. There are day to day concerns to deal with whatever is happening beyond.

“We had the habit of luck and power, and couldn’t understand that they were not our right. We saw that things were bad, elsewhere, but surely something would turn up, because didn’t it always for us?”

From the first few pages the reader knows who ends up at the High House and that Francesca’s efforts enable their survival. The story is of what happened and how they got there. The writing is incisive but also empathetic. The denouement is quietly devastating.

There are elements of domestic drama – jealousies, irritation, resentment, love – that draw the reader in, yet what this story offers is so much more. It is painfully easy to see the reflections of our current situation. When resources grow scarce, what is anyone willing to share and with whom?

Any Cop?: A tale so well crafted it may be enjoyed despite the warnings therein. Book reviewers are sometimes mocked for employing certain overused phrases. In this case I have no qualms in saying, The High House is a must read.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Sight

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“how simple things would be if only I could know myself or others; […] but instead there is only this excavation, a digging in the dark: precarious, uncertain, impossible to complete.”

Jessie Greengrass’s short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, demonstrated her confidence and competence as a writer of innovative, piercing fiction. In Sight, her debut novel, the clarity and conviction of her prose is again in evidence. Written mostly in the first person, with occasional digressions to explore the histories of key medical advancements – x-rays, human anatomy, psychoanalysis – it reads as an intensely personal, non linear series of reflections. It is a search for knowledge, an attempt to make sense of the most challenging emotions – the multifaceted viscerality of love, desire and grief.

The story opens with the narrator “pregnant again”, watching through a window as her toddler daughter, and partner, Johannes, play in the garden. She feels the distance between them, a distance that she recognises will increase as her daughter ages. She understands that this is as it should be, that a child should be raised able to one day cope without parents.

The relationship between mothers and daughters is at the heart of the novel. The reader is offered snapshots of the narrator’s childhood, of time spent with her grandmother, a psychoanalyst who had raised her child alone. It was only later that the narrator came to understand that her mother was also a daughter, and that the grandmother was trying to help and protect her, especially when the mother’s errant husband finally left for good. At the time the young girl felt resentment that she was being kept from her loving mother by a grandmother who required the child to accept more independence.

The inner monologue by which the story is told may be introspective but the author demonstrates her ability to articulate the essence of emotion without hyperbole. Even when recounting the long months leading to her mother’s death and her subsequent grief – a time when she spent day after day in the Wellcome Library – she is seeking an understanding of how she reacted to events.

“The things which I learned without noticing all through that year recur to me still, those images from medical textbooks, the bodies dissected or described, the case notes and the cabinets and all the many ways there are to see inside ourselves, and still I feel that, correctly understood, they might constitute a key”

The narrator is “young, adrift, bereft” when she meets Johannes. After a time, the possibility of having their child is considered. The narrator desperately wants to be a mother but fears that this is for selfish reasons rather than for the benefit of the being she would create. She also fears the inevitable changes motherhood would bring; the uncertainty of what she would become and how she would cope with this. Johannes is supportive, willing to accept whatever she decides but requiring that a decision be made to end the unsettling prevarication.

After her mother died, the narrator disposed of her possessions. She retained memories rather than mementos. Pregnant, watching her daughter she ponders:

“I wonder what they will keep of me, later; what off-cut memories will remain to be re-stitched, their resemblance to myself a matter of perspective. I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused.”

The depth of feeling and insights offered into the distances that exist in even the closest of relationships make this an intense, compelling read.

Any Cop?: The writing is rich yet pithy, the story stark in places yet emotionally resonant.

 

Jackie Law