activism books climate change

Book review: Our house is on fire

Our House is on Fire is a unusual book. For one thing, it’s written by a family. It’s unusual in baring so much personal domestic trauma to the world. And it’s unusual in the combination of topics that it addresses – mental health, parenting, education, the welfare state, activism and climate science.

The first thing to say about Our House is on Fire is that it’s primarily written by the adults. Malena is well known in Sweden as a singer and populariser of opera, and now known to the world as Greta Thunberg’s mum. The Swedish version of the book came out before Greta started her school strike, and has Malena on the front cover. It’s written from her perspective and I’m guessing it was originally marketed as her autobiography. Events overtake that story in dramatic fashion, and the English version comes with a new concluding chapter, four authors and a new title.

But we begin with Ernman as an international opera star, making decisions about how to raise their children with her actor husband Svante Thunberg. The family is plunged into crisis when first Greta and then Beata slip into severe health problems. Greta stops eating and doesn’t speak. Then as she begins to recover, Beata’s ADHD and OCD tendencies become chronic. Much of the book details the challenges of surviving as a family, trying to get diagnoses, solving problems with diet, with schooling. It is bleak and desperate at times, a moving story of a family in dire circumstances.

One of the striking things about Greta Thunberg is how she simutaneously embodies such extraordinary strength and such vulnerability. I really had little idea how deep that vulnerability runs – and perhaps the struggles that have given her such fortitude on the other side of them.

It’s a compelling story and well told, but where it gets really interesting for me is when climate change enters the scene. The parents are dragged into it by their daughters, who simply won’t accept the cognitive dissonance of climate silence. Greta “belonged to the tiny minority who could see our CO2 emissions with their naked eye. Not literally of course, but still. She saw the invisible, colourless, scentless, soundless abyss that our generation has chosen to ignore.”

Greta’s refusal to accept the climate crisis quietly leads the family into action, and through action into healing. Greta finds a mistake in a geography textbook and gets it changed. They change their own lifestyle. Malena and Svante give up flying, and help to start a national debate about aviation in Sweden. The final section of the book sees Greta heading into her school strike and despite her preparations, it would be hard to imagine someone less suited to being an ambassador for a new global movement. Given all that has come before, the way she finds her voice and her confidence as her solo protest goes viral borders on the miraculous.

Others books have been written about Greta Thunberg, and there will no doubt be more. This one is personal, a family perspective and an inside look at the lead-up to Greta’s entrance onto the global stage. It’s an engaging read, by turns full of anger, despair, love, humour, the insights of the neuroatypical, and perhaps most importantly, “the calm, hopeful and solid energy of taking the initiative”.


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