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The High House:  A Novel

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The High House: A Novel

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Author: Jessie Greengrass
Publisher: Scribner, 2022
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Shortlisted for the 2021 Costa Novel Award

In this powerful, highly anticipated novel from an award-winning author, four people attempt to make a home in the midst of environmental disaster.

Perched on a sloping hill, set away from a small town by the sea, the High House has a tide pool and a mill, a vegetable garden, and, most importantly, a barn full of supplies. Caro, Pauly, Sally, and Grandy are safe, so far, from the rising water that threatens to destroy the town and that has, perhaps, already destroyed everything else. But for how long?

Caro and her younger half-brother, Pauly, arrive at the High House after her father and stepmother fall victim to a faraway climate disaster--but not before they call and urge Caro to leave London. In their new home, a converted summer house cared for by Grandy and his granddaughter, Sally, the two pairs learn to live together. Yet there are limits to their safety, limits to the supplies, limits to what Grandy--the former village caretaker, a man who knows how to do everything--can teach them as his health fails.

A searing novel that takes on parenthood, sacrifice, love, and survival under the threat of extinction, The High House is a stunning, emotionally precise novel about what can be salvaged at the end of the world.


Excerpt

Chapter 1: Caro 1

CARO

The high house belonged to Francesca's uncle first, but the uncle died not long after she and my father met. He had no children of his own, and so he left the house to Francesca, and the parcel of land that went with it, the orchard and the vegetable garden, the tide pool, the mill. For a long time, the house had been neglected. When I first came here, for summer holidays with Francesca and with father, damp patches spread around the corners of the downstairs rooms. Tiles were missing from the roof. I remember the chill the house had, even in summer, and the way the wind swooped down the chimneys at night. The orchard, outside the kitchen doors, was overgrown, and beyond it, past the unruly beech hedge with its branch-obstructed arch, the tide pool was choked with reeds. Twice in every twenty-four hours water would flow into the pool, but the sluice gate was long shattered and so, where once the water would have been held to turn the wheel, it only trickled out again as soon as the tide began to ebb. The mill had half-fallen into the mud. The wheel was rotten. It would have been used to grind wheat, when it was built--and now it turns again and powers our generator, which gives us light in winter for as long as we have the bulbs, and runs the fridge in summer. Now the orchard is carefully pruned. We do the apples in winter and the plums at midsummer, as Grandy taught us, carefully cleaning and sharpening the pruning saw, keeping the secateurs on string round our necks because they are so easy to lose. Now the hedge is clipped. In the vegetable garden, things grow in rows. There is a greenhouse with all its glass intact. This is what we do, now. We dig and we weed. We plant. We store seed, and we watch the weather carefully for signs of frost. Now there are hens in the hen coop, although in winter they live mainly in the scullery. We have fields too, which we have claimed because there is no one else to want them. But when I was a child the orchard and the gardens were overgrown. The coop was empty. The house was dusty and unloved.

I

The high house isn't high, really, but only higher than the land around it, so that when it was first built, before the river had been banked and the cuts made to drain the land, when the rain was heavy and the tide was up and the water spread where it wanted, the house would have been an island, almost, with only the westerly part of its land unflooded, a causeway above the waterline joining the house to the heath. And now at times it is almost an island again.

II

In those first years, before Pauly was born, after Francesca came to live with me and father, we used to come here for our summer holiday, the three of us spreading out through the rooms of the high house, all into our different places. We were very separate. Francesca worked, up in one of the top rooms, one we use now to store apples, spread in lines across the floorboards, and potatoes in sacks. I roamed the garden, building dens in the honeysuckle that crept across the ruins of the walled garden, decorating my hair with goose grass, making fairy umbrellas out of coltsfoot leaves. Father stayed in the kitchen. He sat in the old armchair by the French doors, reading, or he stood at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables to make lunch. When I was tired of being by myself, I came in from the garden and trailed after him, nagging to be taken somewhere.

--Where, though, Caro?

--The pool, please.

I loved the tide pool, then. Even now, when we are so reliant on it, I regret the loss of its wildness, the way it was before Francesca restored the mill, when reeds grew down close around its edges and small creatures rustled in and out of them, going about their secret business. I loved how still it was, the way the water rose and fell, creeping rippleless up the banks, the way its surface shone when sunlight caught it--but father was afraid of me falling in, or getting caught in the mud, so I wasn't allowed to go near it by myself.

--Oh, all right,

he said, and went to find his jacket and his boots. I waited for him in the orchard, joggling from one foot to the other, until at last he came out to me and we walked through the hedge, down the path that slopes through a sort of meadow, to where the pool is. There he sat and watched as I swished through the grasses, taking off my shoes to feel the mud suck around my feet, searching for treasures--stones or feathers or once, miraculously, a nest of eggs, each one cracked open where its chick had hatched but otherwise intact, pale blue, speckled, near weightless in the palm of my hand. He watched me until the shadows lengthened to cover the pool entirely, until I started to shiver and yawn, and then he said,

--Home time, Caro. Chop-chop.

--I don't want to put my shoes back on.

--Leave them off, then.

I gave him my shoes to carry, and held his hand, and together we walked back to the high house, where Francesca, alone in her upstairs room, kept working.

III

On other afternoons, father and I went to the beach to dig holes or to throw stones into the sea, the hand-sized flints that stretched like strange eggs along the tideline. Sometimes he let me bury his feet in the sand or, if it was hot enough, took me into the sea to swim, holding me under the armpits while I splashed. When I thought I felt something touch my foot I screamed, and he laughed, and I clung to him, my arms round his neck and my legs round his waist. I wasn't afraid of the water then--or if I was it was a pleasant kind of fear, the sort that sends you yelping with laughter back up the beach when a big wave comes, before you turn and run to chase it out. It was often hot, in July and August when I was a child, although not in the way that it became later, when summers lasted half the year and every day was a white sun in a pale sky. There were lots of holiday rentals in the village, and by late morning the section of the beach closest to it would be laid out with people, row after row of them on their backs, or sitting with their children round them, buckets and spades scattered about, and the remnants of picnics, bottles of sun cream, sun hats, spare clothes. Francesca, back in the house, would say,

--How can they stand to enjoy it, this weather?

She didn't have the habit that the rest of us were learning of having our minds in two places at once, of seeing two futures--that ordinary one of summer holidays and new school terms, of Christmases and birthdays and bank accounts 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.

--They act as though it's a myth to frighten them,

Francesca said,

--instead of the imminently coming end of our fucking planet,

and I knew that when she said "they" she meant father too, and me.

IV

This was when it was still the beginning of things, when we were still uncertain, and it was still possible to believe that nothing whatever was wrong, bar an unusual run of hot Julys and January storms. All summer I ran, half-naked, through the fine days, and when the weather broke, bringing rains so heavy that the water fell in long ropes through the air, I sat inside the high house and watched it from the window, marveling at the quantity of it and the force, how it scoured what it touched, washing crisp packets out of hedges, flattening shrubs, cleaning dust--and then, next morning, it would be hot again, but the air would be filled with steam; and the sea, where the river ran into it, stained with mud.

V

We went to the high house at Christmas too, when some years snow lay on the beach and ice washed in gray sheets down the river, and other years the grass still grew and the leaves had barely turned on their branches. We ate mushroom risotto and then poached pears, and sat by the fire that father had lit, and we opened our presents. No matter what we did, the house seemed to stay empty, with all the doors and windows shut against the cold and so many of the rooms dark, and I tried to make my voice fill up the house while father and Francesca sat on the sofa and read, but there was only one of me and I couldn't make enough noise alone. When the time came to go back to our home in the city it was a relief, because there our lives had formed around us. At home, I knew how to be lonely without it showing. I knew how to occupy myself in my own way, in my own world, which was separate from father or from Francesca--which was private. At home, I knew how to be complete. And then, after a few years, Francesca rented out the high house. A young artist lived there for a while. Francesca didn't like her work, which she thought too comfortable,

--As though,

she said,

--there was nothing important to be thought about.

When the artist left, a group of students from a nearby agricultural college moved in, and Francesca let them pay a nominal rent in exchange for renovating the garden.

VI

All that was before Pauly was born, when there were still only three of us. Francesca was not my mother. She loved me but there was no structure to it. I loved her but I was unsure of her. We rarely touched. Father loved us both, but serially--first one, and then the other. He couldn't love us both at once because we needed such different things from him. As a three, we were not unhappy, exactly, but we weren't happy, either--and although sometimes it seems to me, looking back, that my childhood ended when Pauly came, I can't say that I regret it. It was too quiet then, and I was too often alone. It is hard to be a child in isolation. You take on adulthood like a stain.

VII

I was fourteen the day Francesca brought Pauly home from the hospital. Father and I spent the morning cleaning the house, polishing and sweeping and dusting, until every room smelled of beeswax and vinegar. There was a bunch of sunflowers on the table in the hall, stood up in a water jug.

--She'll say we shouldn't have bought cut flowers,

I said, but father replied that just this once she'd like them anyway, which I thought, privately, seemed unlikely. Francesca had been gone a week. The birth had been difficult, Father told me, when he came back from the hospital in the middle of the night for a change of clothes. The baby had been positioned awkwardly and for a long time its shoulders had been stuck trying to get free of Francesca's pelvis, and also there had been a loop of umbilical cord round its neck which all the struggle had pulled tighter and tighter so that when at last the baby had been got free, tugged out by a pair of forceps clamped round its skull, it had been blue-gray and limp, and the doctors had taken it straight off, before Francesca and father had even heard it cry, to another part of the hospital to be wrapped in a cooling blanket in case its brain had been damaged.

--The baby is a boy,

Father said,

--and we have called him Paul.

Father looked worn out. I made him cups of tea and cooked him pasta with tomato sauce whenever he came home, and I said that of course things would be fine--but to myself I thought that perhaps they would not be fine. I thought of babies in neonatal units, the photos of them I had seen in charity Christmas campaigns or on the news, their tiny bodies old-looking and plugged with wires, barely human, skin like tissue paper spread over bird bones. I thought of the baby, Paul, my half brother, swaddled in an incubator, and I tried to think of Francesca sitting beside him, waiting--but it was impossible to imagine her in such a place. I could not think of her at the mercy of doctors, reaching for a baby that she was not allowed to touch. I could not think of her afraid, but only of her saying to me, when I'd once wanted to know why I wasn't allowed to drink juice from a carton,

--We all have to make sacrifices, Caroline. That is how things are.

No one but Francesca has ever called me Caroline.

VIII

When we had finished cleaning, father and I ate lunch, and then we washed up, put everything away, swept up the crumbs. Scrubbed out all signs of ourselves. Father asked if I wanted to go with him to the hospital but I said no, because I was afraid, both of the baby and his birth bruises, and of Francesca, of what had happened to her and of its consequences--that she either would be herself or would be not herself, changed, a strange infant in her arms. Father kissed me, and then he put on his coat and went out to the car. I stood on the doorstep and watched him drive away, and when he was quite gone, I closed the door behind him and began to wait. I went into the front room first, where the cushions on the sofa were all undented and every book was slotted into its right place on the shelves. After that I went into the kitchen, where there were no mugs waiting to be washed, and into the bathroom, where the towel hung clean and folded and the soap sat square in its dish. In the room that Francesca shared with father, fresh sheets were tucked neatly beneath the mattress on the bed. The washing basket was empty, its usual tangle of jumpers and tights unpicked, washed, and put away. Next door, the baby's room waited, perfect, for a baby. Even my own room was clean, its carpet denuded of books and clothes, its bed made and everything swept, orderly and unfamiliar. I sat at the bottom of the stairs, watching the door, waiting at the center of all the mess-less emptiness of our house, and I might have felt unwanted then. I might have felt that I too had been smoothed out, as though father and Francesca had given me up to start again--but really I only felt that I was poised, en pointe. An end had come, but not a beginning, yet--and then, at last, there was the sound of the car, the key in the door. Father stood aside to let them in, Francesca with the baby in her arms, and it was as though not just my brother but both of them were newly born, their fragile skin pinked by first exposure to the sun. I stood in the hallway, feeling the whole world still about me, as Francesca held the baby out to me and said,

--Look, Caroline! This is Pauly--

and I reached out and took him from her, and time began again.

IX

Sometimes, when Francesca went for a shower, she would give me Pauly to hold, and I would watch him, his tiny curving body nestled into the crook of my elbow, his arms and legs waving gently like ropes of seaweed in an underwater current. He felt as though he were a part of me, then, and when he looked at me and I looked back, our matching eyes held wide, I thought I knew him and he knew me too--until his mouth began to seek, head turning side to side, and his coughing sobs turned into cries and brought Francesca running back.

X

Each morning, father took up residence at the toaster.

--What today, then?

--Two slices, please.

I poured coffee from the pot, one for each of us, and one for Francesca, who came downstairs in her dressing gown, her eyes puffy and face creased, saying,

--Don't ask me how the night was. I feel like I could eat the bloody loaf.

She put the baby in his bouncy chair and sat down next to it, joggling him with her foot so that he tick-ticked up and down, waving his hands in front of his face. In the background, the radio:... fears for the Eastern Seaboard of the United States as storms--

--Turn that thing off, would you?

father called to me, and Francesca didn't stop me, although she frowned, said,

--Turning it off won't make it go away--

We poured milk, passed jam. Father took his lunch out of the fridge and packed it in his bag, searched for his wallet and his keys, got ready to leave for his job at the university.

--Another day of students. When will it end--

I peeled an orange and offered it to Francesca, who took it from me, pulled it into segments and ate them one by one, while Pauly in his chair watched her and made a sort of humming sound.

--Thank you, Caroline.

We had been reconfigured. As a three we were unbalanced, but the baby's weight had evened out the scales. It seemed, at times, as though it were a magic trick done skillfully, so swift and smooth, and I was afraid in case, were I to learn the way that happiness was palmed, the trick would cease to work. Father, buttoning up his coat, said,

--What's today then?

--Double math,

I told him,

--and French. I hate French.

Francesca picked Pauly up,

--Come on, piglet,

she said to him,

--let's get you into some clean clothes--

and she carried him away from us, back up the stairs, into the soft confines of that cocoon his room had become.

Copyright © 2022 by Jessie Greengrass


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