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.)