High House follows our female narrator who becomes particularly friendly with a man she cleans for. He ends up teaching her many things about the world, especially the dangers of climate change.
What did I think?:
This is the second story in Rosy Thornton’s short story collection, Sandlands. When I first started it, I have to admit I immediately thought: “Oh, this isn’t going to be as good as the first story, The White Doe.” However, by the end I was completely charmed by the entire narrative and especially its two main protagonists. It’s a beautiful little tale that feels starkly poignant, especially with the natural disasters that have been plaguing our world in the past few years or so, and with the ever looming threat of climate change having the potential to disrupt our lives and our children’s lives forever.
It’s hard to describe what this story is about but I’ll do my best. Set in the small village of Blaxhall in Suffolk, it begins with our unnamed female narrator who is describing the environment, the tranquillity of her surroundings and her obvious love for where she is living. She works as a cleaner/housekeeper for various residences around the village, but treasures the time she spends with a Mr Napish who lives in High House, a property high above the village and who treats our narrator with courtesy, consideration and respect, being one of the very few who will deign to make a cup of tea for her as she works (ah, a wonderful man indeed!). He talks to her about many things, especially climate change and possesses a map of how the country might look if the sea levels continue to rise in the manner the scientists are suspecting. Unfortunately, the village then suffers its own spate of floods and our narrator and Mr Napish gallantly step in to try and save some of the animal population in some of the sweetest scenes I’ve had the pleasure to read.
One of the things that most attracted me to Sandlands as a short story collection was the promise of stories about animals. I have been delighted to discover this in both stories so far but was surprised to discover the richness and beauty of Rosy Thornton’s story-telling as an additional bonus. She describes the British landscape so eloquently you can almost visualise the area she is talking about and smell those wonderful, natural scents. This story was particularly beautiful as it felt so timely with the recent floods, earthquakes, tsunami’s etc, many attributed to climate change that have taken/ruined many lives irrevocably. It certainly made me stop to think and worry slightly about what might happen in our future. On a happier note, the ending, which I definitely shall not spoil, came as a huge surprise as we get a slight hint about some of the reasons why Mr Napish may be doing what he’s doing (if I’ve interpreted it correctly!) and it gave me such a difference of feelings – terror and the warm fuzzies, an interesting mixture!
Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless farm wife who gave up her own plans when she accidentally became pregnant at seventeen. Now, after a decade of domestic disharmony on a failing farm, she has settled for permanent disappointment but seeks momentary escape through an obsessive flirtation with a younger man. As she hikes up a mountain road behind her house to a secret tryst, she encounters a shocking sight: a silent, forested valley filled with what looks like a lake of fire. She can only understand it as a cautionary miracle, but it sparks a raft of other explanations from scientists, religious leaders, and the media. The bewildering emergency draws rural farmers into unexpected acquaintance with urbane journalists, opportunists, sightseers, and a striking biologist with his own stake in the outcome. As the community lines up to judge the woman and her miracle, Dellarobia confronts her family, her church, her town, and a larger world, in a flight toward truth that could undo all she has ever believed.
What did I think?:
Having read and loved Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, I was eager to read her latest offering, in particular because it was shortlisted for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction 2013. (Please see my previous post HERE). When we first meet our main character Dellarobia, she is fleeing from a stale marriage to begin an affair with a man she barely knows. On her way to the rendez-vous point with her potential lover, she climbs the hills on the grounds behind her home to an amazing sight – multiple strange growths on trees and a valley filled with what looks like flames. Astounded by this, she takes it as a sign that she should return to her family and spurn the man she was escaping with. Later on, we learn that the growths and flames are colonies of Monarch butterflies, which have unusually chose the Appalachians as their spot to roost, instead of their usual spot in Mexico. The butterflies end up attracting scientists and media attention the world over due to this strange occurrence, and when it turns out that this may be all down to global warming, Dellarobia’s life changes beyond which she ever could have imagined.
I thought this was an absolutely beautiful book which manages to communicate the drastic issues of climate change without sounding in the slightest bit preachy. There is a quote on the front of the paperback copy that I own to the effect that the author makes us “think, feel and care” all at once, and I completely concur! This is a wonderfully told story of human relationships, family life, religion and science that all seem to mould together to form a cohesive whole interesting the reader enough that we feel connected to these fictional characters in some way (and the butterflies, of course, whom I formed quite an attachment to). Personally, I was concerned about what was going to happen to these individuals, and when a piece of fiction is not “action-packed,” it is hugely important for me that I felt sympathetic and understanding of the issues otherwise I would have just put the book down, bored to tears. The strength of the writing and of the characters prevents this from happening, and is made all the more poignant for the Afterword where Kingsolver tells us that climate change has actually affected the roosting places of Monarch butterflies (although she fictionalised the setting of the Appalachians). I would definitely class Barbara Kingsolver as amongst one of my favourite authors and consider this a worthy short-lister for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013.