The Pesthouse by Jim Crace

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The Pesthouse by Jim Crace

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A book about a future American dystopia that is surprisingly gentle, kind and optimistic if unlikely. Lovers of language will find Jim Crace addictive, but his prose poem style may prove a stumbling block for some.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330445627

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In a post-apocalyptic America, technology is no more. Government has collapsed and people live in a kind of medieval society. They look with wonder on the twisted metal ruins of its past civilisation, the realities of which are long since forgotten. Money no longer exists and people scratch out a living farming in increasingly hostile conditions on the contaminated land. The once great migration to the west has been reversed as people struggle back to the east and the ocean, where they hope ships will take them to the old/new world and a better life.

When a landslide releases poisonous gases that engulf and destroy Ferrytown, the only resident to survive is Margaret, a plague victim who had been shut away in the pesthouse of the book's title, high up on the hill overlooking the town. She throws in her lot - and her love - with Franklin an emigrant of huge stature but with a kind and gentle nature, who escaped the disaster because of an injured knee. Together they begin the long and dangerous trek to the Atlantic, ocean of American fable. Life on the other side of the river from the relative safety of Ferrytown becomes more and more anarchic. Bands of rustlers roam the land, taking slaves for labour. Strange religious fundamentalists reject all relics of the past.

Oh my, but this is a beautiful book. Jim Crace has a voice of quiet formality and this lends a slight air of distance. Imagery in The Pesthouse is as insistent as it is in Crace's other works - and as individual, and as surreal, and as particular. Thus, despite the plot being quite straightforward - likeable hero and heroine undertake a great journey and suffer hardship and separation along the way but retain their indomitable spirit - the book has a dreamlike, lyrical feel. It is, as is often said of Crace's books, as much a prose poem as a novel. This doesn't make it an easy read, but it does make it an expressive, almost tactile one.

On one level, The Pesthouse is a picaresque - Margaret, if not Franklin, is certainly able to get by on her wits - yet she lost my sympathy for not even a moment. On another level, it's a simple and heartwarming road trip romance. Overwhelmingly though, it reads like a redemption song for the American pioneer spirit. I don't see healing at the end of an American dystopian future I'm afraid, I see Margaret Atwood's Handmaids. It's hopelessly naive perhaps, irritating even, but The Pesthouse is so beautiful I really didn't mind any of that. I could get addicted to Jim Crace. He's not for everyone, but if the use of language to express theme is as important to you as the mundanities of plot, and if you do believe that there is something ultimately precious and celebratory about the human spirit, then The Pesthouse will stay in your thoughts for a long time.

My thanks to Picador for sending the book.

Similarly addictive and almost hallucinatory writing can be found in J G Ballard's Empire of the Sun, while Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has an altogether less hopeful view for a regressive American future.

Booklists.jpg The Pesthouse by Jim Crace is in the Bookbag's Science Fiction Picks.

Booklists.jpg The Pesthouse by Jim Crace is in the Top Ten Books About America.

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Magda said:

So you don't mind s-f after all, if literary, do you?

But what is so hopeful then in this book? With "Bands of rustlers roam the land, taking slaves for labour. Strange religious fundamentalists reject all relics of the past."?

I also see the handymaids, btw, and increasingly feel that it will be bloody well deserved.

Jill replied:

It's a kinda phoenix from the ashes thing. Awkward to explain without spoilers! I like almost anything literary for one reason or another, yes. I just don't like genre SF I guess. I rather like the whole backward future idea too. However much I liked this book though - and I absolutely loved it - I didn't believe in its message one bit.