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Review: The High House

April 21st 2021

One of the most anticipated novels of 2021. Who, if you had to, would you save?

I’ll be honest, I really didn’t want to read this book.

I used to absolutely love nature documentaries on TV. Sir David’s dulcets, stunning cinematography and nature caught in so much detail… there was nothing not to like. As things go, we’re a pretty nature-loving, eco-conscious (think solar panels, wildlife ponds and flowers, bird boxes and hedgehog houses, very little plastic in sight). Our happy place is the natural world but in recent years, the story of the earth’s destruction laid bare on the silver screen has become something difficult to watch, leaving me in a nothing-I-do-will-ever-be-enough spiral of climate anxiety. A melting icecap and a floundering polar bear leave me feeling entirely helpless (or perhaps more to the point, unhelpful).

I know that the rising tide of the Cli-Fi genre can’t be ignored but when Jessie Greengrass’ The High House was pitched to me as one of the novels of the year, I’ve got to say I felt quietly consumed by dread. Did I want to read in black and white the collapse of our world as I know it? Did I want to examine a reality that our world might face if climate change isn’t reversed? And especially now. Living through what has felt at times like a near apocalyptic year, I wasn’t sure I needed anything more to worry about.

Having said all that, I loved Andrew Hunter-Murray’s The Last Day, and so decided to buckle up and give it a go. I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy The High House, let alone be bowled over by it. But reader, I was.

The key to the success of this book is that climate change is used as the infrastructure to tell a story about what happens to people when they’re in exceptional circumstances. It’s a classic trick: take some humans and pop them in a stressful situation and see what plays out. In this case, the story unfolds at the High House once the holiday home of Francesca (a scientist who can see what’s coming) and now transformed into a beacon of hope: a place that might evade the waters, feed them with its orchard and keep them safe. Caro, Francesca’s stepdaughter, has a close bond with Pauly, Francesca’s young son. When the story stretches the family geographically apart, these bonds between family play out in a complex and heart-wrenching ways. Francesca might be a mum to young son, but with the knowledge of what’s about to come, she can’t afford not to act.

The world outside is apocalyptic and it’s come with vengeance to seek out and destroy its own destructors. The climate of anxiety and impending threat is perfectly drawn by Greengrass and the book reads almost like a thriller where the threat takes a natural rather corporeal shape. But the key is that it’s not overly wrought or overly dramatic. It’s in fact, quite domestic – the cooking and the cleaning and the looking after one another still has to go on. The daily chores and overarching crisis sit side by side; the world’s falling apart but life for as long as it lasts has to go on in all its mundanity.

And so, this novel is a perfectly compact microcosm – a story about the lengths we will go for one another – to help in each other’s hour of need, of sorrow or despair. It’s about us – our choice to stay alive, our choice to help those around us and a question of what we’re prepared to sacrifice. The relationship between Caro and Pauly is so beautifully drawn. I raced through the book with them by my side and felt such an urgent need to help them as their terrifying fate unfolded.

There’s something quite poignant about that right now – seeing put into words stories of heroism and defeat which make and break our hearts. Sometimes there are those books which quite incidentally put into perfect words a feeling or a zeitgeist. In this year where we’ve been people step up to the plate to help others in acts of tireless dedication and selflessness, this novel feels somehow ever more timely.


Style guide:

A quick, literary read. Impeccable writing, tense undertones. Very atmospheric and evocative of place. If you loved Rumaan Alam’s Leave The World Behind, this one’s definitely for you.

Extract:

In the morning, I wake earlier than the others. I climb out of bed in my jumper and my socks and I pull on my dressing gown, and after it my leggings and my boots. I go downstairs, and it is cold and dark and very quiet. My boots are beginning to go at the heels, now, but I am trying to get this last winter out of them. My jumper and my leggings are frayed at the cuffs, and my dressing gown is an old blanket with holes cut out for the arms, because dressing gowns are a thing that Francesca didn’t think of – and although, between the three of us, we have a reasonable spread of skills, none of us can sew.

In the kitchen, I check the fire in the range, put fresh wood on the embers and open up the vent until it burns. I pour the last of yesterday’s well water into the kettle and set it to boil, put dried mint leaves in a mug, make tea. I would have had coffee, once. I think this every morning. I think it, and then I think I can still catch the taste of it, but it’s been so long that it could be the taste of anything I am remembering. Milk. Mustard. Ham. They all bring the same flood of saliva into my mouth and the same sad twist into my chest.

Yesterday it rained and I didn’t do my coat up properly. Water got in at the collar and I spent the whole day damp, but today I can feel the chill of empty skies and so, I think, it will be clear. Outside, beyond the window, past the orchard, the sky is still full dark, but soon it will start to pale. I open the doors a crack and the air is fresh and cold, and it smells of salt. It will be an hour or more before the others are up. Caro sleeps badly, and often goes into Pauly’s room in the night, to lie on the mattress he keeps for her on the floor beside his bed. When he wakes, he will stay still so as not to disturb her. It is his own kind of peace, he says, to lie warm under the blankets in the dark with nothing to do. We take these small luxuries where we can, especially in winter.

Media reviews:

'Brave, important and exquisitely written' - Sigrid Nunez
'An extremely thoughtful and meticulous writer' - Sunday Times
'She has a Mantel-esque way with metaphor, in which clarity of the image illuminates plot and theme' - Daily Telegraph
'A writer who clearly has considerable gifts' - Financial Times
'A distinctive new voice in fiction' - Independent
'Stunning' - Guardian


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