It’s fitting that the sky is pouring buckets as I write this review/reaction to Jessie Greengrass’s The High House (Scribner 2021), a climate fiction (cli fi) novel in which weather becomes unpredictable and the sea takes back the earth. Much like the other environmental dystopian reads of late, the novel focuses on family dynamics. (eg. Bewilderment, The New Wilderness, Once there were Wolves, etc.) Greengrass is a very gifted writer, but I found this a soggy (pun absolutely intended) read. Maybe cli fi just isn’t for me.
The novel is told from alternating perspectives: Caro, her half-brother Pauly, and Sally. In the first portion, Caro sets forth the foundation the novel is built on by explaining the relationship between herself and her father and herself and her father’s wife, Francesca, a climate scientist. At one point, Caro says her father loved them both, but he couldn’t love them both at the same time. The relationship between her and Francesca is a contentious one, more so after Pauly is born and Francesca makes him Caro’s responsibility. Francesca is the only person who calls Caro Carolina, but in a sweetly nuanced scene that Caro isn’t present for, Francesca calls her Caro. It’s an interesting dynamic.
The dynamic between Francesca and Pauly is also quite interesting. Francesca knows the end of the world is coming, and she struggles with having had a child knowing what she knows. The reader sees this internal struggle through Caro’s eyes as well as Sally’s.
While both Caro and Pauly think their parents have abandoned them, they were actually preparing the high house for their survival. It’s a painful sacrifice to see play out because Caro doesn’t see the love until it’s too late, and Pauly has no memories of his parents. After Caro’s father and Francesca die in an unpredictable and catastrophic hurricane, Pauly says it comes as a relief. His entire life he’d be anxious wondering when and if they’d come back. After they died, he no longer had to wonder.
Pauly’s sections are short and somewhat childlike, but the voice is very similar to both Caro and Sally. This indistinctness could have been intentional as the three blend into each other for survival, but I didn’t like how similar they are.
Sally and her grandfather are hired as caretakers at high house, which has become self-sustaining and well stocked thanks to Francesca’s efforts. There is even morphine, which is used to allow a peaceful passing for one of their small band of survivors. Caro is most surprised that Francesca had used precious storage space for crayons and Legos for Pauly – another sweetly nuanced scene of sacrifice and anger dissolving into understanding.
Pauly is fascinated with birds, and there are many birds that are referenced throughout the novel. There is a nesting pair of egrets at the marsh, and he checks on them daily. They are confused by the weather and wintering on the marsh when they should have flown to a warmer climate. Egrets should have appeared on the cover – not a great blue heron. While herons are mentioned and while egrets are a type of heron, it’s a great blue on the cover. That bothers me probably more than it should.
Short story long, it’s well-written and portrays some though-provoking relationships and scenarios, but I didn’t love it.