Critics sceptical that Greta’s initiative was entirely her own may find their doubt fuelled by Malena’s eloquent accounts of her own climate activism, while those convinced by climate change science may be dismayed by the book’s eccentricity. Malena’s argument that feminism, mental health and climate activism are interconnected is persuasive but her insistent iterations are strikingly less potent than Greta’s restrained passion. And although Greta and Beata presumably consented to the dramatic descriptions of their mental health problems, these nevertheless feel extremely intrusive.
The Ernman-Thunbergs hate the “hope” sentiment that clings feebly to the tail of so much environmental thought. They don’t want us to be hopeful that a solution will be found to our crisis. They want us to despair. But conversely, forgivingly, that’s where we will find our reserves. “It’s the crisis itself that is the solution to the crisis”, because the frenzy that is a symptom of us breaking down at least shows we are coming to terms with the issues. We can, actually, do very well in crises, we can show the best of ourselves. Someone falls down in the street, and people clamour to help.
Our House Is On Fire is, among many other things, the story of how and why Greta came to be sitting on the pavement outside the Swedish parliament with a home-made placard. The book is co-authored by Greta, her mother Malena Ernman (the primary narrator), her father Svante and her sister Beata. It is an urgent, lucid, courageous account....The final quarter of the book describes the tension-filled days leading up to Greta’s Skolstrejk för klimatet outside the Swedish parliament. There are reasons some things go viral and some things don’t. There is an ancient power in symbol and narrative. There is a powerful magnetism in the defiance of the powerless.
At an age when many other young people don’t know what they want to do with their lives, Thunberg has undeniably become a force in the world. Her public persona is unusual and inspiring, and it offers an alternative to the pornified images of teenage girls that dominate popular culture. She also, I’m afraid, deserves a better book than this messy melange of painful self-exposure and naive exhortation.
This is an English translation of a book by her mother Malena, titled Scenes from the Heart, which has been updated by the whole family, including father Svante and younger sister Beata. Malena describes its subject as “the crisis that struck our family — but above all about the climate crisis”. It makes for a fascinating, if slightly chaotic read, jumping between chapters on Malena’s career as an opera singer, Greta and Beata’s problems, and the climatic havoc humanity is wreaking on the planet. At times, it feels like there is more than one book here: I was not especially interested in Greta’s mother’s mission to “take high culture down a notch”; I wanted to understand what drives the teenager who finally got the world to talk about climate change.
The family have had to deal with death threats and with excrement pushed through their letter box. But Ernman celebrates the “magic” of her daughter’s transformation. A girl who didn’t speak found her voice and began to eat. She found the courage and commitment to speak truth to power. What parent wouldn’t be thrilled? Most of us barely get through a school recycling project without weeping. Although this is a patchy and occasionally disorienting read, tossing together memoir, science, ideology and poetry, it’s also a surprisingly funny and optimistic book. Thunberg and her family might be screaming “FIRE!” on a crowded planet. But they believe we have the power to put that fire out if we act, right here, right now.