THE HIGH HOUSE by Jessie Greengrass – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing, as I pursue a PhD project at Queen’s University Belfast with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
Climate Change Fiction (or Cli-fi) is not a discrete genre so much as a broad spectrum of books in different styles and genres tackling a common theme. Arguably the theme of our age, Amitav Ghosh – in The Great Derangement – felt climate change had been neglected by the prosaic confines of realist literary fiction. The challenge for cli-fi has been how to present a story of global scale and epoch duration through the tight knit cast of a novel with its focus on at most a handful of “individual moral journeys.” It is a kind of Tardis problem – writing a story that is small on the outside, but big on the inside. Barbara Kingsolver achieved that feat very elegantly in Flight Behaviour, and The High House is an equally excellent depiction of climate change present and futures.
It helps that Greengrass’s elegaic style of writing is littered with poignant lines and sharp turns of phrase that drew me into many a “nice line” annotation on my kindle.
“When it was late in the afternoon, and the sun was low and made the water burn gold with its reflection, the birds seemed to be illuminated, gilded at their edges like the angels in the church roof.”
“There were days when the wind blew [the rain] into daggers that stung our hands, our faces.”
“The whole complicated system of modernity which had held us up, away from the earth, was crumbling, and we were becoming again what we had used to be: cold, and frightened of the weather, and frightened of the dark.”
“the future had slipped into the present…like waking up one morning to find that you had been young, and now, all at once, you weren’t”
Greengrass’s story follows three point of view individuals. There is Sally – accidental heir to her grandfather Grandy’s status as caretaker in a seaside village now comprised entirely of seasonally occupied second homes. There is Caro, with an academic for a father, and a climate change activist – Francesca – for a stepmother. And there is Pauly, Caro’s half-brother, too young to remember a world unscarred by the consequences of climate change. The narrative follows two timelines. There is the present time – after a catastrophic flood – of their quotidian experience living in The High House, a place which Francesca had adapted to be a refuge from the dawning disaster. This timeline is broken up with each character’s recollections of how they each came from childhood to become a settled trio at The High House. Greengrass captures the ephemeral nature of memory with clipped sections that range from a bare paragraph in length, to some almost-chapters of several pages. In its fragmentary – almost poetic – moments, The High House reminded me of Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From which charts the experience of a young mother struggling to survive a sudden flooding, while societal breakdown makes mother and baby participants in a refugee crisis.
Motherhood in a time of climate uncertainty is another aspect of cli-fi that Greengrass’s debut explores. Francesca demonstrates much of the “eco-reproductive hesitation” discussed in Matthew Schneider-Mayerson’s 2021 study The Environmental Politics of Reproductive choices in a Time of Climate Change. A 2020 poll showed that 14.3% of childless American adults aged 18-44 cited climate change as a major reason for not having children. Francesca exhibits the concern of many of Schneider-Mayerson’s respondents that parenthood represents an opportunity cost which takes away from her engagement in climate change activism – hence much of Pauly’s care is left to Caro. Yet Francesca also shows that parenthood represents an investment in the future – a hope and a concern for the world beyond our own lifetimes, which drives her into the loving preparation of The High House as a refuge. Francesca casts a long shadow into the perspectives of both Sal and Caro, neither of whom warmed to her – yet, distant though she is, she serves as a model of climate change activism in a constant fight to save the world and her child from its future. As Greengrass eloquently puts it
“…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.”
Cli-fi novels can generally be divided into two categories. There are the “consequential” novels which depict the consequences of living in the aftermath of a climate changed world without interrogating in much detail how we got there – such as the Will Self’s The Book of Dave or John Lanchester’s The Wall both set in a flood beset and transformed future Britain. Then there are the “transitional” novels which explore the change process and people’s reactions to it, starting in recognisable contemporary times, such as James Bradley’s Clade or Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. Greengrass achieves the rare feat of a cli-fi novel that covers both transitional and consequential perspectives. The High House charts the sequence of exceeded tipping points and ever more frequent and proximate extreme weather events by which people are overtaken by climate disaster. Yet it also shows us the grim technologically desolate settled future of our trio’s present time – a time where food, warmth and energy are the constant daily obsessions.
“We think almost exclusively about keeping warm, and if not that, then we think about being hungry.”
The descriptions of unfolding disaster and the way people keep an emotional distance from them are terrifyingly resonant with contemporary TV reports of floods and fires.
“drone footage of torn buildings and flooded streets which showed the water lying still and calm and deep across the places people had thought they owned.”
“We had been watching people drown for years, and the only difference was that they had always been a long way off from us…disaster would only come when it had our own face on it.”
Axel Goodbody identified four challenges for Cli-fi that place different constraints than the conventions of literary fiction.
- To show the scale – in time and space – of climate change impacts
- To be true to the science
- To recognise the non-human impacts of climate change rather than simply portraying what it does to people
- To avoid neat narrative closure with conventional happy endings.
As I have written elsewhere, I think Flight Behaviour met all those challenges, despite its focus on a single protagonist in a restricted locale. The High House also rises to Goodbody’s challenges. Francesca’s environmentalism carries her across the world and the internet shows Caro and Sally the disasters that creep ever closer to The High House. While Greengrass does not dwell in detail on the science, she astutely highlights the significance of tipping points that carry us into increasingly extreme weather with climates changed in unpredictable ways. Her future Britain is a country of long hot dry summers and cold wet winters. Just as this summer has made her description of floods feel horribly prescient, so too this week’s news of instability and potential collapse in the Gulf Stream (read about it here) could easily create Greengrass’s future climate. Greengrass – in Pauly’s fascination with a pair of nesting birds who have tragically missed their migration window, as well as in her reverence for landscape and geography and tree species no longer to prosper in their changing home – gives us a glimpse of a chaos that extends beyond merely human experience. And in the ending Greengrass leaves her protagonists as precariously poised as Kingsolver left Dellarobia Brownlow at the end of Flight Behaviour. This is the consequential future, but it is a future without any certainty of survival. Like the nuclear winter depicted in the 1984 TV series Threads, a post-apocalyptic stability does not mean safety. Which is not to say that this is a downbeat book – it is sustained by the beauty of the writing and the love the protagonists bear for each other and for their loved ones. It is a joy to read, but also a necessary read, for Greengrass depicts a world and outcomes that feel far too real for comfort.
There are two other challenges for cli-fi that I would add to the four that Goodbody identified. Those are
- Showing how inequality doesn’t just affect the severity of the impact of climate change (poor people and nations suffer more) but also affects how climate change action is prioritised (the urgencies of poverty trump the importance of climate change activism).
- Demonstrating the impact of misinformation (largely corporate driven) in hamstringing coherent responses to climate change.
Greengrass, in the guilt of her trio of survivors, shows up the differential impact of climate change. The High House was prepared for them by Francesa and Caro’s father, a lifeboat or an ark, but one that would be swamped if others joined them.
“my safety sat on me like a weight, but there was Pauly to think of, and Caro, and Grandy. We only had enough for ourselves.”
However, Greengrass’s novel doesn’t pick up so much on how wider inequality or misinformation hampers societal response. There is mention of corporate farming methods, distanced from connection with the land. There is the village turned into little more than a holiday camp by second home-owners (another topical theme). There is Francesca heading off to conferences across the world in a bid to get the world to change direction. There is the guilt, of survivors who should have done more
“When Caro wakes me up in the night… and needs me to tell her that she isn’t to blame, or is no more to blame than the rest of us.”
These are real issues to present to a reader, but the question is not so much “what should we – as individuals do – or have done?” but “who should we have expected – nay demanded – did more?” As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway showed in Merchants of Doubt, corporations have invested huge sums of money in protecting profits by delaying environmental and health action on issues from smoking and lung cancer up to and including climate change. Fossil fuel companies are determined to preserve the value of their underground assets by continuing to say we can use (burn) them. Rebecca Willis in Too Hot To Handle: The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change writes about the difficulty of getting climate change onto centre stage in the political agenda and that is what we need to do.
As one of Schneider-Mayerson’s respondents observed, “Ultimately I decided that I feel morally comfortable with the decision to have children because I do not believe individual action can stop the climate crisis. Only systematic national policy change to regulate corporate behaviour can adequately reduce emissions to slow the climate disaster.”
While individual action is always worthwhile, it alone is not enough, but tapping into individual guilt (in covid as in climate change) is a dangerous and deliberate distraction that leaves us arguing over individual hypocrisies rather than corporate malfeasance. The libertarian agenda pushed through think tanks and billionaire owned media is built on three pillars.
- That you must fear and resent the other poor person rather than the obscenely rich person.
- That any regulation to try and protect/safeguard you is actually an infringement of your individual freedom.
- That anything that then goes wrong is down to individuals who misuse their freedom not corporations who exploit and abuse those freedoms.
This mantra plays out in climate change, where climate change deniers predict economic ruin from efforts to make the world a better, greener place. The responsibility for addressing this misinformation – the great derangement – doesn’t simply rest on politicians. As Ghosh noted that “Future generations…may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable — for the imagining of possibilities is not after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.” But the way those imagined possibilities are received can be as unpredictable as our increasingly extreme weather events. In another couple of studies Schneider-Mayerson looked at the impact of cli-fi on shifting readers perceptions, and the findings were a little mixed. Each reader fashions a fresh understanding of a book in the space between their own experiences and the text and this leads to some surely unintended consequences. One reader of Paolo Pacigalupi’s The Water Knife came away with “you can’t trust people” and “you need to be prepared” as their big takeaways. Reactions to cli-fi depictions of the future can range from seeing a call to arms to people to prepare for the apocalypse and retreat to the American Redoubt, through a faith that an as yet uninvented technology will save us (the technology fallacy!) to a Denethorian counsel of despair urging us to just curl up and die because it is all too late.
It is an assumption that novels, through the empathy they inspire as readers place themselves in the protagonists’ heads, can give people new ways of seeing. As G.R.R. Martin wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives before they day, a non-reader lives but one.” Indeed, Nickoleris et al in a paper “Narrating Climate Futures, Shared Socio-economic pathways and literary fiction” expressed the hope that “Through identification with the protagonists in literary fiction, climate futures become close and personal rather than distant and abstract.”
However, empathy is not the only reaction to a novel. It can kindle other emotions too. While in The High House, Greengrass delivers an inspired and vivid depiction of the future and three people’s journey into it, the reader should come away, not chastened, or depressed, or indifferent to what is after all “only” a story. They should come away angry, that this beautifully written evocation of a terrible future must not be allowed to come to pass, and that means doing more than individually recycling our plastic, or even cutting down our flights. That means battering on the doors of politicians and corporations to make sure the fossil fuels stay in the ground.