From Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour to Jenny Offill’s Weather and Doggerland by Ben Smith, the “cli-fi” genre is growing exponentially – no surprise, given the coming crisis. In fact, as an artist in any medium it can feel self-indulgent, in 2021, to be making work about anything else. Jessie Greengrass’s Women’s prize-shortlisted debut novel, Sight, used motherhood as a springboard to explore wider ideas of psychoanalysis and medical history; her second tackles the subject of global heating head-on, conjuring a near-future vision of a flooded East Anglia. Where it excels is in its characters’ recollection of the slow, incremental progress towards disaster, and the effort ordinary people made, every day, to block their knowledge of it out: “Crisis slid from distant threat to imminent probability and we tuned it out like static,” Caro, one of the survivors, recalls.
As the novel opens, Caro is a teenager. Her father’s partner, Francesca, is a high-profile climate scientist and campaigner; it’s a mission on which Caro’s father will join her, too. Francesca may be principled and tireless, but she’s also unlikable, her constant insistence on the coming apocalypse cutting her off from most forms of simple human joy. She’s an astute creation on Greengrass’s part, providing readers with a channel for their discomfort; Caro’s weariness with Francesca’s warnings mirrors our own.
Unbeknown to Caro, her father and stepmother are preparing a refuge for her and her half-brother, Pauly: the High House in Suffolk, built on a bluff with an orchard, vegetable garden, tide pool and water-driven generator, and a barn into which they lay down stocks of clothes, toys, medicine – even a boat. They employ a young woman, Sally, to act as caretaker, and install her there with her grandfather. Caro’s father and stepmother are on the campaign trail when a series of devastating storms hit; there’s just enough time to phone Caro and tell her to take Pauly to the High House, where the two meet Sal and Grandy for the first time. There they remain in a landscape left almost completely uninhabitable: growing potatoes, tending hens, planting a little wheat and guarding against accidents and infections. The question is to what end: “What option is there … for those few of us who have survived, but to be the unforgivable, and the unforgiven?” Caro asks.
Despite its bleak subject matter, this is a book suffused with the joy and fulfilment of raising a child. Left almost entirely in loco parentis even before the crisis comes, Caro adores her little half-brother Pauly, and Greengrass brilliantly dramatises the ways in which the simple rhythms of life with a toddler can bring comfort: “Things had a form and, carried along by it, the future ceased to seem important, although I knew that it would still happen to us, coming on while I was cutting carrots for snacks, while we fed oats to the ducks, played tag, stuck plasters to grazed knees. I fitted my life to Pauly’s, because he needed me – or because I needed him.”
Greengrass is excellent on the complex currents that can develop between people who live in close proximity: the way Pauly’s birth subtly reconfigures Caro’s relationship with her father and stepmother; Sal’s dislike of Caro, with her physical fragility and obvious grief. The fact that both women are orphans is not a source of common feeling but a trigger for judgment, or even jealousy. When Sal observes that the newly arrived Caro and Pauly “seem happy now, anyway”, her grandfather’s response conveys a great deal with very few words:
–they’ve just lost their parents.
–They’ve got each other,
I said. Grandy gave me a long look.
–And you’ve got me.
But as the novel jumps back and forth in time, the very gradual filling-in of information about the High House and who Sally is creates something of a slow start, while some misapprehensions about the ways in which birds are likely to respond to changing weather patterns – not to mention the fact that badgers don’t hibernate, so wouldn’t be “awake too early” – mar the picture of growing natural turmoil. And although Caro and Sally’s backstories and personalities are different, their voices aren’t.
Kindly Grandy, the keeper of practical wisdom relating to sailing and self-sufficiency, is a bit of a standard-issue wise elder, and the question of why “the people we see, sometimes, from the top field, trudging along what is left of the road” never try to raid the house with its generator and precious stores of food and medicine is left unaddressed. 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. From the far side of disaster, Caro recalls people persisting with “the commutes and holidays, the Friday big shops, day trips to the countryside, afternoons in the park. We did these things not out of ignorance, nor through thoughtlessness, but only because there seemed nothing else to do.”