The Pesthouse Hardcover – May 1 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In this postapocalyptic picaresque from Whitbread-winner Crace (for Quarantine), America has regressed to medieval conditions. After a forgotten eco-reaction in the distant past, the U.S. government, economy and society have collapsed. The illiterate inhabitants ride horses, fight with bows and swords and scratch a meager living from farming and fishing. But with crop yields and fish runs mysteriously dwindling, most are trekking to the Atlantic coast to take ships to the promised land of Europe, gawking along the way at the ruins of freeways and machinery yards, which seem the wasteful excesses of giants. Heading east, naïve farm boy Franklin teams up with Margaret, a recovering victim of the mysterious "flux" whose shaven head (mark of the unclean) causes passersby to shun her. Their love blossoms amid misadventures in an anarchic landscape: Franklin is abducted by slave-traders; Margaret falls in with a religious sect that bans metal and deplores manual labor, symbolically repudiating America's traditional cult of progress, technology and industriousness (masculinity takes some hits, too). Crace's ninth novel leaves the U.S. impoverished, backward, fearful and abandoned by history. Less crushing than Cormac McCarthy's The Road and less over-the-top than Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown (to name two recent postapocalyptos), Crace's fable is an engrossing, if not completely convincing, outline of the shape of things to come. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
Crace's latest novel takes place at some indeterminate point in the future in which America has been reduced to a wasteland. It is never explained whether this is the result of some apocalyptic event or simply the decline of a degenerate civilization, but the result is the same: a lawless, technologically bereft society amid a poisoned land. Embattled survivors are trickling east, following rumor of ships that will take them, in a reversal of America's long lost promise, across the sea to a brighter future. Two such travelers, Margaret and Franklin, meet in sickness, endure nightmarish perils, and fall in love on their journey to the shore. Crace shines when depicting scenes of desolation--the opener, in which a heavy rainstorm sets off a chain reaction that kills an entire town in its sleep, is particularly haunting--but strangely this winds up more an innocuous love story than a revelatory survival saga. Inevitable comparisons to Cormac McCarthy's The Road will arise, and although this is less potent, it offers no less portent. Ian Chipman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
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Brothers Franklin and Jackson Lopez have left their home in the west at the behest of their widowed mother. The brothers are notable for their size, seen as giants compared to other men, their muscles and brawn valuable barter along the way. When Franklin's aching knee will no longer support their journey without rest, Jackson goes ahead to Ferrytown, where he finds respite and sustenance for the night. But fate has other plans for Ferrytown, a great looming upheaval of natural confluences. Meanwhile, discovering the ailing woman in the pesthouse, Franklin shelters with her, the two forging an unexpected alliance; together they will travel across a barren, mud-slogged landscape, the rich natural resources of the old America long extinct. On this extraordinary journey, Margaret and Franklin achieve a closeness that neither could imagine before they met, a joining of wit and will that is their only comfort as they confront the perils ahead.
Civilization reduced to anarchy, menace is everywhere. Even the supposed safety of the Ark, where metal is anathema, exists partly through the fantasy that good intentions can prevail against force. Nearly lost to one another after being attacked by a violent band of bandits, Franklin and Margaret realize the extent of their isolation, savoring future intimacies while embracing a vision for the future. Crace's prose, while weighted and bleak, is filled with the nuances of hopeful beginnings, an appreciation for the simple, pure struggle for survival in a world informed by possibility. Franklin and Margaret are remarkable characters, putting me in mind of Margaret Atwood's stark prose, survivors who face the future and find it lacking, recreating instead the dreams of their forefathers, the pioneers who envisioned a new prosperity from the bounty of the earth. The Pesthouse is remarkable, beautiful and encouraging, life stripped to the essential, relieved of the cynicism of greed. Luan Gaines/2007.
I loved it. I savoured, yet devoured it.
I didn't want it to end, yet raced my way to its last page and I must conclude that anyone who thinks it worthy of less than five stars out of five is no friend of mine!
There. With that out of the way...
In this, the first novel by Crace I have ever read, post-apocalyptic America has been so long destroyed by some sort of un-named ecological disaster that the surviving population has reverted to a frontier, pioneering manner of life.
Gone [and seemingly long-forgotten] is the age [our own] of automation and electricity. No cars or planes, no big buildings or mass communication.
It is an America in shut-down mode, where a donkey is an extravagance.
It is an inversion of the American Dream, a reversal of Manifest Destiny, and nearly a return to the Dark Ages.
However, civilization's demise is not global, or so the inhabitants of Crace's America [and we readers] are led to believe. Legend has it that across the sea, in Europe, things are not so bad. Whatever has happened to America has not happened there. Europe is the new Promised Land, and hopeful Americans become pilgrims, making their way east where they believe they will board ships that will ferry them to their prosperous future.
Toward this utopia, the Lopez brothers, Franklin and Jackson, are making their way.
At a crucial point just outside Ferrytown, Franklin cannot go on, due to his bum knee. [Man, I could really relate to this guy, having a rickety knee myself!]
Low on supplies, Jackson heads into Ferrytown to work in exchange for food, leaving Franklin to rest on a hillside, and vowing to return.
But Jackson does not return. In the middle of the night, a landslide causes displaced gases from the lake to envelop the town, killing all the inhabitants, including Jackson.
Don't let the first line of the book fool you [as it did, me]. "Everybody died at night," does not refer to the overall end-of-the-world state of things. It refers merely to this one isolated tragedy, which serves, among other things, as a catalyst for Franklin's meeting with Margaret.
Ahh, red-haired Margaret.
She has been abandoned by her family at the top of Franklin's hill, in a hut known as the pesthouse.
It is a somber cabin where victims of the flux, a terrible disease, are left to die. Margaret is there, languishing.
Because Jackson does not return as promised, Franklin seeks shelter in the pesthouse, and a friendship is now born which will endure the length of the novel, and beyond.
Together they set out, their mutual ailments abating, toward the east.
But what a journey awaits them! This will not be your average Boy Scout hike!
The bulk of the novel is the chronicle of their journey, wherein they encounter peril after peril, and mutual pilgrims all along the way. Folks helpful, and folks not so helpful.
And bandits aplenty, none of which are helpful!
Quite suddenly, Margaret and Franklin are separated, and Crace chooses to follow Margaret's continued quest, which is now no longer involved with merely reaching the ocean, but with a desired reunion.
She wants to find and/or rescue her Franklin. She becomes, for me as a reader, a very convincing heroine, someone I grew to love and admire for her courage and determination, and dang-it-all red-haired feistiness!
What a holy terror she is, at times!
And one of the main reasons is because, along the way, Margaret has become a mother to a child.
No, it is not what you think. The child is unintentionally adopted, along the way. Margaret is fighting not only for her own freedom and survival but also for her child, which she renames Jackie, in memory of Jackson.
Don't mess with a mother!
The mother's going to win.
The mother is going to get what is needed.
This was one of the most rollicking, gut-searing, adventurous, well-paced, un-put-downable, well-written, ending-redeeming, simultaneously scenically stark and beautiful novels I have ever read. Really, I loved it that much.
I agree with the Globe and Mail reviewer Joan Thomas, who called Crace's style "just one draft away from blank verse."
It is truly poetic. Mythic, even.
Some may find it an authorial inconsistency that towards the end, the travelers [now making their way west] encounter a landscape with "fewer dangers, warmer nights, softer going in a season that was opening up rather than closing down. It even decorated the way with early flowers."
What happened to the toxic soil and the barrenness and the despair?
It is overcome, in this novel, by the persistence of life and survival.
No inconsistency at all.
In the end, Franklin and Margaret are called upon to make some truly brave decisions, on behalf of the purest kind of love for one another.
And they do.
There are always flowers, somewhere.
Crace is a masterful wordsmith (parts of this book should be read aloud, just to enjoy the poetic flow of language), but the truth is that his oblique style and his sheer wordiness made me irritable after a bit. "Get on with it," is what I wanted to tell the author. "And your point is?" (As for the "plain prose" the Washington Post Book World reviewer mentions above, I beg to differ. This is prose manipulated and woven *around* the events it describes.)
In fiction writing, the art lies as much in the leaving out as the leaving in. This certainly doesn't preclude wordiness (think of Faulkner -- wordy, yet leaving you wanting more), but I think that Crace fell in love with his own voice in The Pesthouse. Furthermore, the plot is not interesting enough to look past the author's overbearing voice. The reader is never drawn into the story.
The first three or four pages (heck, the first chapter!) can be summed up in one sentence: a landslide fell into a stagnant lake and raised a gas cloud that killed people and livestock. That's fine for a chapter, but the whole novel is like that. I can't recommend this book, but have given it three stars anyway because Crace is truly an artful writer.
Crace swiftly sets the tone of his book and makes his readers uneasy in the prologue: "This used to be America, this river crossing in the ten-month stretch of land, this sea-to-sea. It used to be the safest place on earth." Franklin is young and impulsive, which soon leads to trouble. Margaret is older and used to staying beneath the radar. She is the more observant and adaptable one. As they pass the rusted-out hulks of factories and the weed-choked arteries of disused highways, Crace leads us further and further away from our traditional American values of progress, technology and industriousness.
It is an engrossing journey, but one that I never completely believed. Although I liked the characters of Margaret and Franklin, and I found Crace's view of an America forgotten by history to be quite interesting, I felt as though I were being held at a distance... as though I had the flux. If not for that No Man's Land between the characters and me, I would rate this book even higher. Unfortunately, this lover of dystopian fiction felt a bit quarantined.