“The High House” by Jessie Greengrass. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021. 255 pages, $27.00
“The High House” is the story of British teenager Caroline “Caro” who must cope with caring for her young half-sibling Pauly in the environmental disaster aftermath of global warming that leaves the two orphaned and living atop at remote coastal summer home that the great flood has not yet invaded. Caro is aided in her task by local twentysomething Sal, a diligent farm homemaker who has been brought up in comparative austerity by her capable elderly grandfather Grandy.
Caro’s stepmother is renowned environmental activist Francesca who births Pauly late in life and then spends his first 5-years preparing for the environmental apocalypse. Unbeknownst to Caro, who is 14 years old when her brother is born, her parent and stepparent have been making survivalist preparations to retreat to a coastal summer home high atop the cliffs as global weather becomes increasingly erratic.
After a disastrous weather event on the US east coast that kills both parents, 19-year-old Caro makes an arduous journey to the coastal stronghold, sometimes carrying her little brother on her back. She finds that her parents have laid in years of supplies in anticipation of worldwide disaster and added amenities including a tide pool, a mill, a greenhouse, a vegetable garden, and lots of self-contained elements for sustainable living. She is met by Sal and her grandfather Grandy, who have been engaged to help the two embark on a life sans civilization.
After just months, the very tenuous fishing village near the High House has been abandoned and the last remaining local denizen is an elderly vicar who sometimes entertains pilgrims or climate refugees at sporadic church services. Caro is troubled by her failure to assist the rapidly dwindling population and goes on solitary runs in the vicinity of their house to deal with survivor guilt.
The entire family remnant is devastated when the final high water arrives and patriarch Grandy collapses from illness and the church is deserted for good. This novel touches on themes of isolation, family responsibility, personal good versus societal good, and what human reaction should be in the face of extinction. This is the second novel for author Jessie Greengrass, who lives in Northumberland England and has written a previous novel and a critically acclaimed short story collection.
“The High House” is a beautiful novel about going into the great unknown with hope, poise, and aplomb. It stands with “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy as an intimation of the various trajectories that might arise when “the last one standing turns off the lights”.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference and Local History Librarian at Alamance County Public Libraries. She can be reached at email@example.com.