Malena Ernman, Greta and Beata’s mother, is the controlling voice of Our House Is on Fire. Malena keeps telling us that she was once a great opera singer, famous throughout the world; then the day came when she had to renounce all that for the sake of everyone’s wellbeing. Svante, the father, who was a successful actor and who does not say much in the book, agreed.
The girls steadily withdraw from their insufferable, conventional schools; the family goes into an anxious, self-righteous huddle, willing itself to change in the direction of sustainability. ‘‘You must change your life,’’ Rilke once proclaimed, in an effort to focus the souls of poets.
In the same way, but without the spirituality (the Thunbergs are more inclined to a badgering humanism), the family shouldered the task of dismantling their high-consumption lifestyle. At one stage, they even made room for Syrian refugees who had fled from their war. A domestic disaster, we are told, albeit all too briefly.
Malena writes operatically; the text hyperventilates. She herself was diagnosed with ADHD in her 40s, and there is nothing to say its symptoms are not still part of her life, refracted in her daughters. You can’t help feeling that the beautiful mother, who is blessed with two pretty girls, feels guilty about her transmissions.
By the same token, everyone is awfully proud of ‘‘great-grandfather Svante Arrhenius who won the Nobel prize for his pioneering work on the greenhouse effect’’. Inspired, the Thunbergs plough on into their proliferating diagnosis, offered to them by Sweden’s Welfare State, which they scorn for its contribution to the 100 per cent increase in teenage mental ill health over the past 10 years. The household is stressed out. They split off from each other; often they do not even eat together. When it comes to reflecting on how a family unit can turn in on itself, its members competing with and oppressing each other, Malena is useless.
However, Beata, like her mother, is happiest when singing and dancing, and is best left alone to do that. Greta is a silent swat: she has her mother’s incredible memory. ‘‘Greta is smart,’’ Malena writes, and tells us that Greta thought the election of Donald Trump in 2016 could be a good thing because it would speed up our understanding of how bad things can get on the climate front. (What would Greta say about a re-election of Trump?)
Occasionally, Greta raises her face from a screen to call some leader a liar. Why? Her mother asks, as if she might challenge the silent precocious one. Because, Greta tells her, the leader did not or could not own the fact that he was a causal part of the climate emergency. Obdurate leaders threaten our very survival. ‘‘If you want us to change the world,’’ Greta likes to tell them, ‘‘you have to change things first.’’ Out of such vicious circles, the Thunbergs’ utopian project is to generate hope.
Time burning, time running out, is the given of this book. I don’t want to argue. It got me rethinking Greta, and sharpened me up on climate change. I just hope it does not feed the puerile reactionary forces in our culture. Our House Is on Fire is a stressful provocation – one for the greater good, if we can bear it.
Barry Hill’s new poetry collection, Kind Fire, is out in April.