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Our House is on Fire: A messy, funny and optimistic memoir from the Thunbergs

Memoir: Our House is on Fire

Malena and Beata Ernman with Svante and Greta Thunberg

Allen Lane, hardback, 288 pages, €23.80


Mother and daughter: Malena Ernman with Greta

Mother and daughter: Malena Ernman with Greta

Our House is on Fire by Malena and Beata Ernman with Svante and Greta Thunberg

Our House is on Fire by Malena and Beata Ernman with Svante and Greta Thunberg


Mother and daughter: Malena Ernman with Greta

According to the standard diagnostic guidelines, people with Asperger's, or high-functioning autism (HFA) aren't meant to get irony. Greta Thunberg thinks that's funny. She has Asperger's, and she's intensely alive to the irony in how many of the world's most powerful people have responded to a teenager's attempts to stop them destroying the planet.

She laughed when short-fused Donald Trump tweeted that she "work on her anger management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!" And she altered her own Twitter bio to mock him right back, as she did with Putin.

In fact, the 45th US President gets less flak than you'd expect in this quirky - and inevitably difficult - book by Thunberg and her family. "At least Donald Trump is honest," she says. "He prioritises new jobs and more money and blows off the Paris Agreement, so everyone calls him an extremist. And rightly so, but we're all doing the exact same thing." Turns out, the Swedish girl who has devoted the past three years to speaking out about man-made climate change once didn't believe in it herself. "I remember thinking," she says, "that it couldn't be true. Because if it was, we wouldn't be talking about anything else."

When the reality sank in, she had a kind of breakdown. Although the tangle of voices in this memoir are hard to separate, the story of Thunberg's crisis is mostly told by her mother. Malena Ernman is an opera singer and brings the strange drama of her art form to the page as she describes watching her 11-year-old descend into a "hell" of depression, self-starvation and selective mutism.

Because both of my children also have ADHD/HFA diagnoses, I relate entirely to Ernman's account of parenting square pegs in a system designed for round holes; where you're caught between wanting to protect your children from the world's judgment by helping them mask their difficulties, and yelling about their difficulties from the rooftops.

In this book, Ernman is laudably frank. She describes her tears and her husband falling to the floor as they battle to get Greta to eat - it could take her 53 minutes to eat one third of a banana. Things got worse when her younger sister was also diagnosed with ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, which caused her to scream abuse and hurl DVDs at her already broken parents.

Ernman's own - inevitable - "burnout" begins when she collapses on stage during a performance she can't remember but is told was magical. Getting an ADHD diagnosis of her own allows her to see her family's neurodiversity as an asset.

Thunberg credits her Asperger's with giving her clarity on the terrifying facts most of us convince each other to put on a back burner. She reminds us that a burner is A FIRE. It's time to panic. She disrupts the personal narrative of her entertainer mother to say: "This is a book about climate change and it's supposed to be boring." The numbers she offers, however, are more hair-raising than boring. One flight from Sweden to Japan, she reminds her parents, undoes 20 years of recycling.

The story of her "school strike" in 2018 and her rise to celebrity has often been derided as a conspiracy, in which a naïve child's fame-hungry parents pushed for media attention by proxy. Here, Ernman snorts at the idea that she has the energy to mastermind some kind of "eco-fascist global superstate". She is honest about the fact that, if Greta weren't her daughter, she might have ignored her, too.

Ernman, however, celebrates the "magic" of her daughter's transformation. A girl who didn't speak found her voice and began to eat. She found the courage and commitment to speak truth to power. What parent wouldn't be thrilled?

Although this is a patchy and occasionally disorienting read, tossing together memoir, science, ideology and poetry, it's also a surprisingly funny and optimistic book. Thunberg and her family might be screaming "FIRE!" on a crowded planet. But they believe we have the power to put that fire out if we act, right here, right now.

Indo Review