In 2009 Margaret Atwood published The Year of the Flood, set in the aftermath of a waterless flood, a flu-like pandemic that almost extinguishes human life. Twelve years ago such apocalyptic visions still felt speculative. Today, Jessie Greengrass’s new novel, The High House, imagining a near future in which civilisation is engulfed by an actual watery flood, does not. It feels chillingly inevitable.
The author of a prize-winning short story collection and Sight, a novel shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, Greengrass grew up partly in Devon and lives in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Her affinity with the countryside permeates this book, in which nature is both sublime and implacable.
It begins near the end: Caro, her little half-brother Pauly, and Sally are ‘the last ones, waiting’, in a house in Suffolk equipped for self-sufficiency by Pauly’s mother Francesca, an environmental activist who has been trying to prepare an unheeding world for apocalypse. This coastal hideaway is her legacy, a totem of maternal love, filled with her son’s protectors — Caro, along with Grandy and his grand-daughter Sally, locals with rural knowledge.
Elsewhere, rising water has reclaimed the land ‘people had thought they owned’. By turns, in brief, controlled sub-chapters, Caro and Sally narrate the events leading to this point — ecological decline, extreme weather, mass death and displacement — with interjections from Pauly, the axis around whom the household orbits.
The novel’s verisimilitude is striking; like Kazuo Ishiguro’s speculative visions, it’s done with restraint and propelled by finely observed dynamics between characters who grapple with survivors’ guilt and ungraspable truths, wondering why they cling to a decaying life of grinding subsistence.
Described in measured, meditative prose, humanity’s paralysis is painful to read: the myopic faith in the status quo, the fearful waiting game. Sight contemplated motherhood, and this novel raises questions of parental responsibility in the face of an uncertain future — although Francesca’s motivations are inadequately explained.
Climate anxiety pervades contemporary fiction: Carys Bray’s When the Lights Go Out and Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind both examine dread — the psychological brick wall of the unprecedented. The High House does this and more. In Greengrass’s vivid realisation of the consequences of inaction, the day cannot be saved, only deferred. Yet the bleak inexorability and earnest tone are mitigated by her moving, spiritual evocations of love, grief and a landscape haunted by its ruined past. This sobering prophecy of collective guilt is also a hypnotic elegy to nature, and our vanishing place in it.
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