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Jessie Greengrass Shares Her Favourite Novels on Siblings and Surviving Disasters

Posted on 15th April 2021 by Anna Orhanen

Having explored motherhood, memory and the anatomy of change in her highly acclaimed debut Sight, Jessie Greengrass returns to family relationships in her extraordinary new novel The High House. It follows Caro who with her step-brother Pauly retreats to the family's holiday home, which her scientist stepmother Francesca, with foreknowledge of an impending catastrophe, has turned into an ark. In this exclusive piece, the author shares her favourite novels about surviving disasters and the power of sibling bonds. 

On The Beach by Nevil Shute 

As a child, I spent my summer holidays at my grandparents’ house in Suffolk. There wasn’t much to do, other than lie in the garden and read my way through my grandmother’s bookshelves – which is how, one hot week in August, I came to read Neville Shute’s extraordinarily bleak apocalypse novel On The Beach for the first time. It was doubly effective for being so unexpected, sandwiched as it was between his comparably frothy melodramas A Town Like Alice and Requiem for a Wren. In fact, it left me so upset that I have never been able to bring myself to read the whole of it again, although once, a few years ago, I turned the radio on in the middle of the night to find a dramatisation of it playing, which I was similarly unable to turn away from. In it, a group of inhabitants of Melbourne, Australia, wait for the fallout from a nuclear war which has already happened in the northern hemisphere to reach them. As the cloud creeps further south city after city ceases to communicate, and the end is not in doubt – the horror lies in this certainty, and in the ways that the protagonists try to come to terms with what they know is coming while, around them, their own world goes on as normal. 

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Contemplating the fate of mankind after a nuclear holocaust with petrifying acuity, Shute’s pivotal masterpiece about a group waiting for a radioactive cloud to reach them feels just as powerful today as at the time of its publication in 1957.
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The Death of Grass by John Christopher 

John Cristopher’s The Death of Grass is a similarly difficult book to read – not because its protagonists lack a future, but because of what they must do to ensure it. Written in 1956, it feels starkly relevant today, in a world in which pollinator decline is a pressing issue. Cristopher imagines a virus which has killed off the world’s grasses – wheat and barley, as well as pasture - leading to widespread famine. Desperate to avoid the chaos in cities whose food supplies have been cut off, two families make their way across a nightmareish vision of England to what they hope will be safety in rural Wales. 

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A planet driven to the brink by famine is chillingly rendered by Christopher in this landmark post-apocalyptic thriller, noted as much for its psychological flair and jet-black political satire as its compelling adventure and inspired world building.
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Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

A longer view of the collapse of worlds is taken in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, surely one of the greatest (almost) English language novels of the last hundred years. Something has happened, and, many generations on, its survivors cling on, surrounded by the relics of a civilisation the details of which they can recall only through myth. The sense they have of being lesser – of being a diminished version of whatever it was that went before – has haunted me since I first read it, beautifully rendered in a strange, distorted version of English, itself redolent of the ghosts of a more familiar language. It is a shattering novel, a perfect balance of the magical and the prosaic and the mingling of the two, which seems to flow deeper every time I return to it.

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A unique specimen in the annals of speculative literature, Hoban’s breath-taking examination of the power of myth and the ideas of progress is unforgettably narrated by the eponymous Riddley in a broken, primal vernacular.
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The Shrimp and the Anemone by L. P. Hartley

As an only child, I have always been in equal parts fascinated and mystified by sibling relationships. I can remember how desperately I wanted a brother or sister, but also how noisy and chaotic the houses of my friends seemed when they had more than one child in them. Now, I have two children of my own, and find their relationship constantly surprising, comprising as it seems to do a thin layer of irritation over a bed of inexplicable tenderness. It’s a relationship which seems surprisingly absent from literature after about 1900, which was one of the reasons that I wanted to write about it in my own book. There are, however, some exceptions. L. P. Hartley’s The Shrimp and the Anemone describes the relationship between nine-year-old Eustace and his older sister, Hilary. It is set during a summer holiday in Norfolk, and is the sort of book I love – something like the literary equivalent of a Dutch interior: apparently empty, but evoking, through what it shows, the much larger territory of what it doesn’t. L. P. Hartley is extraordinarily good at writing about children, and their attempts to grasp and make sense of the adult world they must grow into, and this book is no exception.

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Following a brother and sister during a summer holiday on the Norfolk coast, The Shrimp and the Anemone is an evocative, quietly poignant story about the magic of childhood and the moment when the outside world starts to infringe upon it.
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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Finally, it might seem odd to include Shirley Jackson’s gothic classic We Have Always Lived in the Castle in a recommendation of books about siblings, but like all the best horror there is more to this book than thrills: at its heart is the relationship between Merricat Blackwood and her older sister, Constance, and their love for one another. This, too, is a book about survivors – along with their uncle Julian, the sisters all that is left of their family, the other members of it having been murdered over dinner some years previously. The villagers believe the murderer was Constance, and as a result the sisters, shunned, spend their time alone in their crumbling house, trying to take care of one another. The novel’s denouement is a twist of sorts, but I have always found it powerful less for the events themselves, than for the picture they paint of the sisters’ powerful love for one another.  

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A masterpiece of black comedy and sepulchral atmosphere, Jackson’s signature work introduces a gallery of unhinged characters and sinister machinations in a twisted tale of venality and wilful greed.
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