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The Pesthouse [Hardcover]

Jim Crace


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Book Description

May 1 2007
During the years of America’s ascendancy, the great ships brought waves of immigrants to the promised land. In sight of the Statute of Liberty, the huddled masses disembarked in search of the American dream. In the imagined future, the great ships play a different role. In a work of outstanding originality, Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse envisions a future America in ruins and a reversal of history: desperate Americans seeking passage to the promised land of Europe.

Crace’s future United States is a lawless wasteland. The economy collapses, industry ceases, and the remaining populace returns to subsistence farming. The only hope rests with reaching the east coast and obtaining passage by ship to Europe.

Like many Americans, Franklin Lopez and his brother, Jackson, leave their farm to begin the long trek east. Within sight of their goal, Franklin is forced, by an enflamed knee, to stop. While Jackson continues forward, Franklin seeks rest in a seemingly abandoned stone building in a forest. Inside, Jackson discovers Margaret. Margaret is feverish with a deadly illness and is confined to the Pesthouse with little hope of recovery. Franklin should flee. Instead, he is drawn to Margaret and stays by her side while she sweats out the fever. After her recovery, Margaret joins Franklin on the journey east.

This journey is fraught with danger. Rule-of-law no longer exists and the land is plagued by roaming bandits and slave traders. The threat of danger slowly draws Margaret and Franklin closer to each other. A bond of love begins to form. They also draw comfort from joining a group of like-minded pilgrims. The illusion of safety is soon shattered. While resting from a day of travel, the group is taken captive by mounted bandits. Franklin is taken as a slave. On account of her recent illness, Margaret is spared along with an elderly couple and a baby. Margaret must continue on without Franklin.

A bewildered Margaret slowly pushes eastward with the elderly couple and the baby. She is eventually separated from them and must take sole responsibility for the baby. With hope fading, Margaret stumbles upon the refuge of the Ark; a religious community which provides food and shelter in exchange for denouncing all metal technologies. Margaret accepts the laws of the Ark and is allowed to enter with her baby. While safe, Margaret secretly hopes to be reunited with Franklin.

Their paths cross again under tragic circumstances. The Ark is attacked by the same mounted bandits that enslaved Franklin. While the Ark is looted and the community massacred, Margaret and her baby escape. They are reunited with Franklin by chance following a slave uprising in the vicinity of the Ark. Narrowly escaping their pursuers, Franklin, Margaret and the baby continue the journey to the East coast.

Upon finally reaching their destination, the dream is shattered. Margaret discovers there is no room for women with young children on the ships bound to Europe. There is no choice but to turn back. With the end of one dream a new one is born. Inspired by their growing love, Franklin and Margaret decide to return west, with the baby, as a family.

Jim Crace concludes “going westward, they would go free.”

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Bond Street Books (May 1 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385662637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385662635
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.5 x 2.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 159 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #695,036 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

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.

From Booklist

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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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  43 reviews
73 of 77 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "This used to be America. It used to be the safest place on earth." May 6 2007
By Luan Gaines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
America the Beautiful in ruins, there are no cities, no skyscrapers in what has become a distinctly medieval landscape, travelers on foot and with laden carts, horses and donkeys replacing the frantic cacophony of a world reduced to the basic elements of survival. Knives, bows and arrows have replaced the stuttering menace of assault weapons, the steady roar of jets extinguished. Now weary folk trek eastward, toward the ocean where they hope to cross to Europe. Followed only by disease and want, superstition takes the place of science, the land demanding payment for its generosity, farmers valuable for their knowledge of the soil. In Ferrytown, the needs of travelers have bestowed a constant source of income for those industrious enough to build their town around ferrying and hostelry. Pestilence visits Ferrytown intermittently, the only recent victim thirty-year-old Margaret, whose own father died from the flux that now excoriates her every breath. Left to recover, or not, in the small, removed hut of the pesthouse, Margaret slumbers, fevered.

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.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Flawless! Aug. 21 2007
By Cipriano - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I will skip all introductory preamble and move straight on to several opinionated statements ? The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace, is an absolutely superb novel. Best I've read in a long time!
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."
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.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An easy book to set aside May 17 2007
By Patrick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This was my first exposure to Mr. Crace's work, and I was a bit disappointed. This dystopian novel follows the fortunes of two people, Franklin and Margaret, who are thrown together against fate in an America apparently devastated by pollution and war, a land where everyone is either slogging their way eastward across the ravaged land to seek ocean passage to Europe, or preying upon the would-be emigrants. While there were a few inventive takes on post-cataclysmic America, I found the story's development to be slow, the writing sometimes tedious, the dissertations on the characters' thinking in various situations way too wordy, and the lapses in logic often implausible. As reviewer Francine Prose wrote of Franklin and Margaret in a NY Times review, "I hoped things would work out for them, but I didn't much need to know." Given the author's reputation, I hung in there even though this was an easy book to set aside. At the end of it all, I felt it was rather a poor investment of my time.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully Written but Predictable and a Bit Aimless Sept. 24 2007
By A. Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
One thing that's key to understand going into this book is that it's all about tone and feeling, and not about details or logic. To a certain extent, the reader just has to accept the world that Crace has presented, and not try to figure it out. This was a big struggle for me as I started it, since most stories (be they books or films) set in a post-apocalyptic world either explain how the world got that way, or use the mystery of the "why/how" as a major plot device. Here, Crace simply posits a greatly depopulated America some two-hundred years in the future (according to an interview I read) which has been thrust back into a kind of early 19th-century existence, only with almost no technology and no written language. There are intimations of a widespread plague, and some kind of permanent crop failures, but just hints, nothing concrete. Elements of this make no sense at all -- especially the loss of technology and writing -- but you just have to go with it.

The book follows two people through this landscape where there is no government or rule of law beyond rudimentary local customs and practices. Franklin is a young man from somewhere out West, who has left the homestead to make his way to the East Coast, where there are apparently ships that take people to a better life in Europe. Margaret is a 30ish spinster whose family, according to custom, kicks her out of their fairly prosperous town when she manifests symptoms of the plague. The two are thrust together by fate, and embark on a perilous quest eastward for a better life. Their journey is filled with the expected trials and tribulations (bandits, betrayal, slavers, separation, physical hardship, etc.), but the story is told in such a way that it is clear the two will end up back together by the end. One flaw in the book is that Franklin is left far too underdeveloped to really engage the reader as a co-protagonist, especially in comparison with Margaret, who is fully realized.

In that sense, the story might be considered too gentle. Yes, bad things happen to Franklin and Margaret, but this version of America isn't quite menacing enough to invest the story with any real suspense over the outcome. Indeed, at times, it's hard to really understand why people want to leave and head for the ships. Large swathes of the country they pass through seem perfectly fine, with farming and animal husbandry. And indeed, this greatly undermines the story's conclusion, which I won't give away, but is not exactly surprising. Ultimately, Crace seems to have written this book as a way of expressing optimism. it's definitely worth reading for his beautiful command of language and unexpected turns of phrase, especially when it comes to physical description, just don't expect it to hold together as a dystopian vision of the future.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Everybody died at night in this America turned upside down April 4 2010
By Cathy G. Cole - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In the fishing village along the riverbank-- a place called Ferrytown that likes to charge exorbitant fees to any stranger traveling through-- Margaret is showing definite signs of sickness. Her head is shaved, and she is taken to a small stone cottage where she is left to recover... or to die. She is found by a young man named Franklin, and together they begin a long journey through an America laid waste by this disease they call the flux. Margaret and Franklin will be traveling through an America reduced to medieval methods of living where everyone hopes to make it to the East Coast to pay for passage on a ship bound for Europe-- the Promised Land. The couple will have many adventures along the way.

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.

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