What do we know about Noah’s Ark? Rather a lot, actually. We know its dimensions (300 cubits long and 50 cubits wide, making it roughly the size of an aircraft carrier), its construction material (gopher wood sealed with pitch) and its ventilation system (a door in the east-facing side and a skylight). We also know that it carried enough animal and human stock to replenish the world after the Great Flood. In Jessie Greengrass’s new novel The High House, the house of the title becomes an ark as a second great flood engulfs the world – only this time, there is no hope of the waters subsiding and a new world being built afresh.
Francesca is a climate change activist, and someone who can see the future clearly. “She didn’t have the habit the rest of us were learning of having our minds in two places at once,” her stepdaughter Caro tells us, “of seeing two futures – that ordinary one of summer holidays and new school terms… in an endless, uneventful round, and the other one, the long and empty one we spoke about in hypotheticals, or didn’t speak about at all.” Francesca only sees the second future, the one in which a devastating climate emergency has racked the globe.
The house of the title becomes an ark as a second great flood engulfs the world – only this time, there is no hope of the waters subsiding and a new world being built afresh.
In the world of the novel, the emergency is fast approaching. Over the course of Caro’s childhood, “crisis slid from distant threat to imminent probability and we tuned it out like static.” Francesca travels the world, spreading the warning. In defiance of the future she knows is nearly upon them, she has a son, Pauly. Francesca goes back to work; Caro watches an island sink on the news and makes pasta and plays with Pauly in the garden.
Meanwhile Francesca is secretly kitting out her holiday home, the high house, to be ready for the apocalypse. She installs a generator and repairs the greenhouse, buys chickens, clears the vegetable garden. She enlists locals Sally and her grandfather as caretakers: Sally is young and strong and kind, Grandy knows how to catch mackerel and that chickens need grit to form eggs. One day the phone rings, and it is Caro and Pauly’s father: he tells them to leave the city and go to the high house. That night he and Francesca are swept away in a flood which decimates the eastern coast of America.
Greengrass is masterful at building eerie suspense as Sally and Grandy, Caro and Paul, wait for the flood to come. “We had been watching people drown for years, and the only difference was that they had always been a long way off from us, before,” says Sally. At first it is almost like make-believe,
The world of the high house – narrows imperceptibly, day by day, as “the things we used but couldn’t make” begin to run out the long hot summer when “each day was a white sun in a pale sky.” Then it becomes oppressive, with no respite from the clammy heat. And then, finally, the rain comes, and it is almost a relief. Until it doesn’t stop…
Greengrass is masterful at building eerie suspense
There is no pulling of punches about what is to blame for this second flood: it lies squarely at the feet of modern life. “All the safety and comfort we had, the heating and the insulation, the gas hobs and electric lights, the things which happened when a switch was pressed, had their own cost. For decades, we had deferred payment…” The post-flood world – the world of the high house – narrows imperceptibly, day by day, as “the things we used but couldn’t make” begin to run out. “We are not self sufficient. There is no such thing,” says Caro starkly. Pauly knows that “each of our futures will contain some degree of extraordinary pain.” And yet, “I can’t say that I would rather be dead. I would not rather be dead.”
The High House is beautifully written, spare and haunting, elegiac and beautiful. But, alas, as with all climate change prophesying, those who believe don’t need to hear its message, and those who don’t won’t listen to it. The marooned high housers “do what we can for one another. We try to be kind.” This novel reminds us that we are long past the point of redemption, and that stark, brutal choices will have to be made later unless we pursue more ruthless climate policies now. The only alternative is to learn how to make rafts out of reeds, because “it is not enough to have an ark, if you do not also have the skills to sail it.”