Short, numbered sections and fragmented speech presentation also get in the way of a truly immersive reading experience, so the book is ultimately not as emotionally affecting as it deserves to be. The question with all cli-fi is what the reader should actually do with the warnings it aims to deliver. And this is where The High House stands out, for Greengrass understands that perhaps the best writers and artists can hope for now is to help us admit, accept and process our collective failure to act.
The narrative skips back and forth in time, propelled throughout by an urgent sense of unease. As it unfolds, it becomes more fragmented, the three first-person voices melding into one another like the seasons, like the change, “coming fast and unfettered”. The premiss is dark, but Greengrass’s lyrical prose brings glimmers of light: as well as threatening, rain is beautiful, “a falling mist that lay in drops on hair and clothes like tiny jewels”; in the barn, fully stocked by Francesca, Caro feels “love come off the shelves like heat”. Despite the devastation, this not-quite family finds small moments of love and happiness – moments when, according to Pauly, “I think we laughed, although I can’t remember why”; moments when, surrounded by an ending, the prospect of a new beginning arises.
Greengrass is a thoughtful writer and The High House is full of elegant, resonant sentences about human fallibility, complacency, selfishness and our unquenchable capacity for love. Yet there have been several more interesting novels about climate change that match thematic urgency with narrative ambition and an imaginative interrogation of human nature — Jenny Offill turned solipsistic anxiety into its own artform in her recent excellent novel Weather. The High House, for all, or perhaps because of, its meditative loveliness, feels inert.
Since her 2018 novel Sight – which divided critics, and which I found to be one of the most startlingly powerful works of literature published this century – Greengrass has demonstrated a knack with long, elegiac sentences that somehow avoid sprawl as they extend. Style for Greengrass can be a silent, long-range weapon. In The High House, it is as if she uses a future post-apocalyptic world as a perspective from which to apply the melancholy, nostalgic air of Ian Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein or WG Sebald to our own present. The story is haunted by an old world that got washed away.
While gesturing at a number of thorny moral and ethical questions — not least who deserves to be saved from such collectively created destruction? — it’s essentially an intimate, elegiac drama of a not-quite family finding a way to be together.
Greengrass steeps us deeply in her wild, watery setting, and while her evocative tale doesn’t deal in surprises, its prophetic vision fixes the attention.
It’s all extremely bleak — which isn’t new for Greengrass, whose award-winning short-story collection An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It contained tales of extinction and grief, while her debut novel Sight is about a woman reflecting on her mother’s death. The High House is similarly ruminative, propelled by reflection rather than plot (since catastrophe is nigh there’s only one direction in which the novel can go).
Greengrass has followed former John Murray publisher Mark Richards to new indie Swift Press (launched June 2020) for this, her exquisite second novel. The high house of the title was once a holiday home owned by Francesca, a scientist and seemingly one of the few to understand the severity of the climate crisis. So she prepared the house to sustain her step-daughter Caro, her son Pauly and local Sally-who take it in turns to narrate-when the darkest time comes. Both a portrait of an unconventional family and of inexorable environmental tragedy, I found this extraordinarily moving.