In the not-so-distant future, Caro and her brother Pauly live in England with their increasingly on-the-road parents–Francesca, a well-known climate scientist determined to get the word out about impending disaster, and their father, a college professor who joins her. As more extreme weather takes shape throughout the world, Caro serves as Pauly’s main caretaker as islands disappear into the ocean and shores are destroyed. Caro’s father calls one day and tells her to take Pauly to their summer home immediately–the two set off for Suffolk to a house on a hill that they haven’t been to in years, only to discover a sustainable bunker they didn’t know about and a young caretaker and her aging grandfather with great knowledge about the land. As the modern world crumbles around them, the four inhabitants rely on a barn full of supplies and the food they can grow in Jessie Greengrass’ new novel, “The High House” (2021, Scribner).
Told through the switching perspectives of Caro, Pauly, and Sally, the caretaker, “The High House” explores the nuances of small interactions from each person’s perspectives, as well as the vastly different responses to the grief surrounding such a significant and almost unfathomable event as modern infrastructure’s total collapse. Caro feels at a loss, lying in bed for days, while Sally keeps herself constantly busy with any task at hand. Pauly is only a few years old when he arrives at the High House and remembers little of the world outside, occupying himself with his fascination with birds and the nature that surrounds them. Through the hardships of forging on without supplies or connections to the outside, caring for Pauly as he grows up becomes a focal point and a source of joy for the rest of the household. As Caro observes, “there is a kind of organic mercy, grown deep inside us, that makes it so much easier to care about small, close things, else how could we live?”
While labeled as science fiction (and also referred to as part of the growing subgenre of “cli-fi,” or climate fiction), the most striking parts of “The High House” are the small things–Pauly’s love for a pair of egrets and his ability to name all of the birds around him; the grandfather’s care and attention to his surroundings, tenderly sketching a picture of a badger he leaves food for and referring to him as a “fine young chap;” the variety of toys and games Francesca collected and left among the supplies for Pauly as he grew up. During mind-numbingly uncertain times, it can feel so futile to continue long-worn routines or to cling to small observations–but “The High House” reminds us that those small things can sometimes mean everything.
Check out “The High House” at your closest Denver Public Library location or as an ebook or eaudiobook through denverlibrary.com.
Hannah Evans is the senior librarian at the Smiley Branch of the Denver Public Library.