“Crisis slid from distant threat to imminent probability and we tuned it out like static…”
Francesca is Caro’s stepmother, and Pauly’s mother. A scientist, she can see what is going to happen.
The high house was once her holiday home; now looked after by locals Grandy and Sally, she has turned it into an ark, for when the time comes. The mill powers the generator; the orchard is carefully pruned; the greenhouse has all its glass intact. Almost a family, but not quite, they plant, store seed, and watch the weather carefully.
A stunning novel of the extraordinary and the everyday, The High House explores how we get used to change that once seemed unthinkable, how we place the needs of our families against the needs of others – and it asks us who, if we had to, we would save.
As this somewhat sobering novel begins the reader is immediately aware that disaster has already struck and that the high house has now become the refuge Francesca had so presciently prepared for her young son and her stepdaughter. Caro was fourteen when Pauly was born but, as Francesca was often away, she had spent a lot of time looking after her half-brother so her relationship with him was almost that of a surrogate mother. Her bond with him was strengthened by her criticism of her stepmother for apparently putting ‘the hypothetical, general needs of a population above the real and specific ones of her family’, without knowing that some of Francesca’s absences had been because she’d been preparing the high house for their future safety. Caro had just turned eighteen when she received an evening phone call from her father (who was at a conference in America with Francesca) telling her to pack their bags and take the early morning train to the high house, where Sally and Grandy are already living.
At the end of her last visit to the house, just as she was leaving, Francesca had said to Sally ‘My stepdaughter might come … and my son … Take care of them … please.’ That time has finally arrived and the lives of these four characters are now inextricably intertwined and, through the alternating first-person narratives of Caro, Sally and, in time, Pauly, the story moves backwards and forwards in time to reveal the details of the events which had led up to the need to seek sanctuary in the house, as well as those which follow as each of the characters attempts to adjust to all the uncertainties their new life together will bring.
Although the exact location is never spelled out, there are many clues which suggest it is somewhere along the coast of East Anglia, certainly the descriptions of the landscape surrounding the house were reminiscent of that part of the country. However, although I initially found it helpful to be able to visualise a specific area as I was reading, I think that by the time I turned the final page I was so caught up in the apocalyptic nature of this disturbingly prophetic story that the location had become totally irrelevant. I think this was probably because so much of the thought-provoking nature of Jessie Greengrass’s novel has its roots in a couple of Caro’s reflections. The first, about Francesca, … ‘She didn’t have the habit that the rest of us were learning of having our minds in two places at once, of seeing two futures – that ordinary one of summer holidays and new school terms, of Christmases and birthdays and bank accounts in an endless, uneventful round, and the other one, the long and empty one we spoke about in hypotheticals, or didn’t speak about at all.’ The second, post-disaster, when she rationalises this denial in her reflection … ‘We did these things not out of ignorance, nor through thoughtlessness, but only because there seemed nothing else to do.’
I’m sure that these uncomfortable truths are ones which most of us will, possibly rather shamefacedly, recognise. In the face of uncertainty, the need to hold on to what we know, what is familiar is a powerful defensive mechanism, even when it’s bound to leave us unprepared to grasp the magnitude of the loss we’re facing. Through exploring her characters’ struggles with adjusting to the disaster, their gradual realisation that, although they had survived, their future remained uncertain because the world as they’d known it no longer existed, the author very powerfully evoked not only their increasingly urgent sense of unease, uncertainty and fear, but also their discomfort with feelings of guilt that they are survivors when so many others aren’t. Equally well-evoked were not only the inevitable tensions which arose between the characters as a result of their enforced intimacy in what had become their shared home, but also how they were at times able to put these aside, to show care, compassion and love to one another and to still find delight in the minutiae of everyday life. Although the familiar rhythms of their old lives had to change, they found comfort in establishing new ones, a reminder that with familiarity comes a sense of security, however illusory that might be.
Throughout my reading I appreciated how Caro, Sally and Pauly’s different perspectives not only allowed me to get to know and understand them, but also added layers of depth to the unfolding story. I especially enjoyed discovering how Caro, and later Sally, focused so much attention on caring for Pauly as he was growing up. Although there was, almost inevitably, some rivalry between the two women, their love for him was never in doubt. However, I did feel some disappointment that I got to know Grandy, such a wise, compassionate and likeable character, only through their eyes and wondered why the author chose not to give him his own narrative voice.
I’m left feeling full of admiration for the way in which the author has used such elegant, hauntingly elegiac prose to create a story which is so disturbingly thought-provoking and challenging. Despite the fact that its central message about the potentially catastrophic effects of uncontrolled climate change is dark, the author managed to inject some lovely light, joyous moments into her characters’ lives, although I have to admit that these became fewer as I, along with Caro, Sally and Pauly, faced the reality of what their longer-term future looked like – as one character reflected … ‘You think you have time. And then all at once you don’t.’
Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Published by Swift Press (1 April 2021)
Hardback, ISBN 978-1800750074