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The High House coverAfter years of incremental change you stand, surrounded by your accommodations, and wonder for the first time at the fact that everything should, somehow, have come to this.

When we talk about climate change, it is often as the coming apocalypse, an end of the world on the horizon. More realistic, though, is that the end of the world has already begun, we just haven’t noticed. With striking prose, an eye for complex relationships, and a painterly depiction of the natural world in crisis, Jessie Greengrass’s The High House bears witness to the silence and splendor with which the world is ending and asks: what does that even mean?

The High House imagines a near future in which the onslaught of natural disasters scientists predict will be the consequence of climate change does, indeed, come to pass. The novel focuses on a group of four, brought together by Francesca, a climate scientist and advocate, at an inherited cottage outfitted to weather a climate crisis. Caro, Francesca’s stepdaughter, and her young son, Pauly, join village natives Sally and her grandfather, Grandy, in a haven only Francesca has had the foresight to construct. Told in recollections and anecdotes, The High House tells the story of four people weathering the storm.

What spoke to me most was the way in which The High House, in addition to being beautifully written, captures the contradiction and cognitive dissonance of the moment. In a few key ways, Greengrass crystalizes what it is like to live through the onset and escalation of climate change, when it is difficult to look both backward and forward in time.

Francesca does not get to speak for herself in the novel but is alternately remembered by her children and by Sally. Other reviewers have found her “unlikeable,” but for me, Francesca embodies the contradictions the novel interrogates. Righteous to the point of alienation, Francesca comes into the lives of Caro and her father early, and from then on never fails to remind them that irreparable damage has been done to the Earth’s ecosystem. Her work urging governments to take action takes her away from her family often, yet she commits an act of hope—baby Pauly.

-They think this baby is an admission of defeat,

And then,

-They think it means that I no longer care or that I don’t believe what I say-

But watching her I thought that it was not defeat at all. Rather, it was a kind of furious defiance that had led her 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.

For someone so staunch in her convictions that the planet is to become irreparably uninhabitable to also create another person inherently implies—perhaps requires—a future; it signifies the presence of two truths existing in one body.

Unlike Francesca, most of us hold some kind of belief that our children, should we choose to have them, will have some semblance of a life that looks somewhat like ours has. Simultaneously, critically thinking, socially aware people also know that, with continued inaction by governments around the world, our planet’s ecosystem is changing for the worse. Many of us walk this cliff edge trying not to look down, making choices in the grey area Francesca inhabits so clearly—to hope or not to hope?

Francesca also believes unflinchingly in the good of the many over that of the few, reminding her family constantly of the shelter their privilege creates. The family watches TV coverage of natural disasters in far-off and, well, brown parts of the world—and Francesca alone can imagine what it will be like when it’s their home that is destroyed. Yet, in the world before collapse, and without telling Caro and Pauly, Francesca and, eventually, their father are creating a sanctuary at the high house. Secretly, she rehabs the aging cottage and equips it with everything they’ll need to live through the disasters only she can see coming. For Pauly, still a young child, there is more than the necessities: coloring materials, Legos, playing cards, and so on.

All the characters struggle with this question—how can I help myself and not others?—but none so clearly as Francesca who, spending more time away from her family than with them, thus sacrificing the integrity of personal life for public good, is simultaneously building safety for a select few: her own loved ones.

*

In The High House, Greengrass holds the slow and incremental degradation of the ecosystem up to the light. This examining eye is turned, also, toward aging, a process we similarly imagine as a slow and unnoticed but major shift.

Sally and her grandfather, Grandy, are two of the village’s only year-round residents, caretakers and observers of what, for others, is only a seasonal refuge. With vitality and care, Grandy stewards the gardens and homes of vacationers while they are away. Along the way, he passes down his knowledge of the village, its ecology and the way people have, for centuries, lived with and off the land. He fixes roofs, weeds and sows gardens, digs for clams, and so on. But bodies can’t carry on forever.

Things happened slowly, and then all at once. I don’t remember Grandy getting old, but by the time I was in my mid-teens, he had stopped swimming every day. He was wary on ladders. He carried a stick. In the garden, kneeling to weed between cabbages, he would often pause before standing up and then do so slowly, in stages, his hands on the ground, then on his knees, and then at last he would huff himself upright… but isn’t this how change always becomes visible?

Sally watches her grandfather grow old the way we all do, but with particular contrast given Grandy’s physicality earlier in life. She observes an inescapable fact of life: the (usually) slow loss of one’s physical faculties, things you used to do with ease becoming, one by one, impossible, painful, or just not worth it.

By contrast, there is Pauly. Through Caro’s loving eyes, we see him grow from an infant to young child. At turns he is timid but curious, joyful yet serious. As a teenager whose parents are increasingly absent, Caro becomes absorbed in Pauly, caring for him, playing with him, tucking his pants into his socks, letting him into her bed in the middle of the night. Through Pauly’s eyes, their flight from their city home to the high house is both more confusing and less. At the high house there are new things to love—the ocean, tide pools, a family of egrets, Sally and Grandy. Quickly, life at the high house for the adults comes to revolve around Pauly, his youth one of the only things to disrupt the monotony and dread of self-sufficiency after disaster.

Later, in the present day from which the characters recount their memories, we hear from Pauly as a much older person, finding that dynamics have changed. Where Caro protected Pauly when he was young, now that he is grown it’s the other way around. It’s Caro who comes to sleep in his room in the middle of the night.

Through her keen observation of these two slow processes, aging and the destruction of our climate, Greengrass makes a subtle but necessary comparison. One of these things is truly an inevitability: growing up and growing old. Climate crisis, on the other hand, is no more a fact of life than any other circumstance of human creation. We created and must also be the ones to reckon with it.

I tried to see these things as I thought Francesca did: not as part of that long, slow slide, entropy which grinds and grinds, which is beyond intervention, is out of reach, winding us toward our end; but as something fresh and acute – a set of circumstances that could have been prevented, once, but now have gone beyond repair – but it was too much to bear.

To bear witness to something like climate crisis—which is, at this point, both inescapable and mitigable—is a political act. So too, is the exercise of imagining what climate crisis will mean for humans when we, as a planet, are so woefully under-prepared. The High House does this with grace, grieving a natural world forever changed—and doing justice to the work of wrapping your brain around how the end of the world can look so much like the world always has.



Emma Leff (she/her) is an avid reader of SFF as well as an arts education administrator, theatre artist, and haver of niche hobbies. She hails from Chicago, IL and holds a B.A. from Hampshire College in youth studies and theatre. Currently, she’s working on an academic journal article about youth artists and the adults who support them. It will be finished eventually. When not reading or working to provide young people with transformative arts experiences, Emma can be found riding her bike excessively or making her own clothes. You can find her on Twitter.
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