3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The time is the far future in an America which has broken down into something resembling its incarnation. Machines have fallen into disrepair, cities are rubble, but a surging tide of humanity flows eastwards, towards the ocean and the sailing ships which, they have heard, take them across the ocean to a cleaner and more promising land.
Joining the tide come two young brothers, Jackson and Franklin, but Franklin has somehow hobbled his knee on the journey and has to rest, so it is Jackson alone who goes down into Ferrytown that night. Franklin sits in the cold and rainy forest, hoping his knee will have mended enough for him to join his brother in the morning. Instead, he finds the pesthouse, where Mags, a young woman with the flux has been incarcerated in the hope that she will be able to survive the dangers of the disease without contaminating her relatives and neighbours.
But something terrible happens in Ferrytown that night, an occurrence that throws the sickly Mags and Franklin together so firmly that privations such as near-starvation and robbery and the acquisition of a small baby abandoned by its grandparents, and even a forced separation by slave-taking criminals, cannot alter.
This brilliantly compelling novel reads like a real-life adventure and is told in lucid descriptive prose that conveys the atmosphere of danger, desperation and hope - and the slowly maturing love for each other - in which the two protagonists undertake their journey. It is a moving and very human story with a subtle surprise near the end.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
It is very difficult to read "The Pesthouse" without drawing comparisons with Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" - either the book or the film version. McCarthy's spare, haunting approach to an American apocalypse and nightmare vision of the future almost sets the template for this type of fiction, and if you have read that first and then come to Jim Crace's take on things, you may find The Pesthouse wanting for something.
Crace constructs his vision of a post-apocalyptic America with typical precision and skilled use of language. It is easy to imagine the ravaged landscape, but the violence of McCarthy's vision is strangely missing, and as a result The Pesthouse seems to lack a purpose, other than to sketch out a landscape of destruction in some depth.
As with "The Road", the characters here are all heading towards the coast and the potential of ships to a better life, but somewhere along the way The Pesthouse seems to lose direction, and the story gets bogged down in some essentially uninteresting characters. Even the finest prose can become hard work if it doesn't drive a compelling story, and Crace almost gets lost in his own nightmarish world before dragging out a pretty unconvincing conclusion.
Much like the world Crace has created here, the book is hard going, and hard to fathom and ultimately unrewarding.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on 7 March 2007
Jim Crace is an orderly, methodical writer (his friend Will Self said: "I wouldn't dream of saying that Jim's study demonstrates anal retention, but his marker pens are colour-coded and the distance between his keyboard and chair is painstakingly measured out"), so it's a surprise that the wait for his new novel, The Pesthouse, doubled the usual metronomic two-year gap between his books. It had better be good.
In fact, it had better be better than Cormac McCarthy's recently lauded The Road, because superficially the two have a lot in common. Both are set in a post-apocalyptic America, with straggling survivors battling against the collapse of civilisation and doing their best to evade marauding bandits. Like McCarthy's unnamed man and boy, the characters in The Pesthouse are heading for the coast, where they hope for... what? "We go. We carry on. That's what we have to do."
But where McCarthy produced an immersive, devastating fable, Crace has set his sights wider: and lighter. There are some threats in his story, but few real moments of terror, and his world is more colourful, because his language is too. Anyone who has read Crace before will know what to expect: a rhythmic and mythic prose, full of off-kilter but just-so detail. Dawn is "at the very moment that the owl became the cock;" seagulls are "stocky, busy, labouring, their bony wings weighted at the tips with black;" the ocean is "one great weeping eye. On clear days, we can see the curve of it."
One difficulty with this rich style is that often the drama, emotion or other engine of the story can be blocked out by it. You are so conscious of the beauty of the words that they stay on the surface of your mind without always sinking in. And sure enough, Crace's tale of Franklin, big and shy (and a bit of a muddler, like his earlier `heroes' Aymer Smith and Felix Dern), and Margaret, left by her family as a victim of plague (or "the flux"), to begin with lacks weight, and for the first half or so the book meanders along with going anywhere much. The feel is not particularly American, and more like a straightforward medieval setting than a future dystopia, or the sort of parallel world Crace has conjured before in Arcadia or Six (which, like The Pesthouse, showed us how well he writes about cities). Occasionally though, the glimpses of an industrial past do cut through and when they do, they work remarkably well:
"Colossal devastated wheels and iron machines, too large for human hands, stood at the perimeter of the semicircle, as if they had been dumped by long-retreated glaciers and had no purpose now other than to age. Hardly anything grew amid the waste. The earth was poisoned, probably. Twisted rods of steel protruded from the masonry. Discarded shafts and metal planks, too heavy to pull aside even, blocked their paths."
And it's around the halfway point that the story really begins to gather itself. Franklin and Margaret face separation, rape, death, and encounter a ripely painted series of characters. Allegories rise up reminding us not only of America's recent past but our own: immigration, prejudice, slavery, the scattering forms of family life. Crace even stops to have fun with some (literally) ineffectual religious cult members. By the time we reach the coast, he has fashioned most of all a remarkable love story out of the unlikeliest elements. And by the end it is moving and elegiac, altogether a warming and compassionate thing, and easily Crace's best book since Being Dead or even Quarantine.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 June 2013
The book is set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic America some time after an unspecified catastrophe. This is the main problem with the story as it's not very convincing. Life doesn't seem too bad as there seems to be plenty to eat if you're willing to work, and things seem to have reverted to life as it was around 1800. Despite this, people are all making the long journey to the East Coast in order to take sailing ships to a better life across the sea.
For the majority of the book we follow a couple who are brought together by chance and decide to make the journey together. The book is essentially about what happens to them along the way, but also how they fall in love along the way.
It's a very well written book in terms of the language and style, but it is pretty slow going at times. It was quite an enjoyable read, but didn't really live up to the post-apocalyptic setting that I expected from the blurb as it might as well have been set a couple of hundred years ago.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 21 March 2007
This is a well-written novel with a lot of interesting ideas, scenes, and well-drawn characters. I read it avidly, enjoyed it, but without genuinely caring for the fortunes of the two main characters as they searched for a better life elsewhere. It has been compared with Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" as both deal with a pair of characters, bound together by love, travelling through post-apocalyptic lands in search of better fortune. Having read "The Road" immediately before this, I feel this is by far the lesser work and, in particular, it fails on two levels. The first is that the setting is unconvincing. This is supposed to be a post-technological future version of America, descended from some undisclosed apocalyptic catastrophe. However, there is nothing to convince the reader that things are actually all that wrong with the world. There's plenty to eat, animal and plant life abounds, and there are plenty of people around. So why no government, technology, education or information, etc? Seems things are OK on one side of a river and a lawless jungle on the other. The reader is at a loss to work out why and it's hard to accept it. Put simply the world of the Pesthouse is not a convincing one. The second problem is that there is something in the writing that makes you feel that the dangers faced by the protagonists are superficial and there is little doubt cast in the reader's mind that they will prevail. Compare this to "The Road": that novel's unrelenting bleakness, its horrificly godless world of death is totally convincing; and its ability to conjure an absolute dread of reading on - made even worse by the father's desperate and primal drive to simply keep his beloved son alive (to "carry the fire") in a dying world where the handful of surviving men and women are reduced to starving lunatics, killing and eating each other - is stunning. In comparison, this doesn't really hit the spot.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 8 May 2007
'The Pesthouse' is packed with all the rich trace elements you would expect from a work by Jim Crace. Few writers have the courage let alone the ability to effortlessly surf the waves of time, reality and imagination with such grace as this writer does. Pesthouse sees the creation of yet another dreamed up world, eerily familiar, astonishingly real but surprisingly different. We do not need to know how the once great America has plunged into medieval torpor. We need only savour the sublime narrative that describes this uncertain and often cruel future, punctuated by two of Crace's most vibrant characters to date - the indomitable 'Red' Margaret and lumbering, bashful Franklin Lopez. Throughout their struggle for survival and a better tomorrow, theirs becomes a love that proves to be remarkably tender, enduring and real. With Pesthouse, Crace has created his most fascinating vista yet and, as always, he invites you in to fill the tantalizing gaps he leaves behind.
on 13 December 2012
America has suffered a disaster, an indeterminate time before, but long enough for 21 century buildings to collapse. We don't know what caused it but, from internal evidence, it may have been bubonic plague.
Again, we don't know if this was released by terrorisim, failure to contain a government laboratory or store, or by land and sea changes which have allowed plague bearing rats to enter the new world. The population seems to be undertaking a patchy and fitful migration eastwards.
The whole concept fits beautifully into the requirements for a science fiction novel, but this is clearly not intended to be science fiction. There is a greater concentration on people and their interactions than there would be in event driven science fiction.
Franklin and his brother Jackson are among the migrants, travelling alone to begin with, but ultimately joining another small group. At Ferrytown, where a major river has to be crossed, we meet Margaret, a plague victim who has been isolated outside the town, in the pest house of the title.
There is an incident in Ferrytown, but I am not going to tell you what it is so that the story won't be spoiled for you. As a result Franklin and Margaret team up and move eastwards over the river.
After a variety of very plausible incidents (I'm not going to tell you about these either) they reach the east coast where they see the ships which are to take them to the promised lands beyond the ocean. These ships look like 18th century sailing ships. So, we are either in a parallel world in which technology stuck at sail, or the civilisation has regressed considerably. We have to wonder about the level of technology in the promised lands.
The ending is likely to surprise you, so I won't reveal it.
on 3 March 2010
Jim Crace takes more risks in his stories than most authors writing today. In THE PESTHOUSE he manages to create a love story with seeds in disease, death, futuristic semi-annihilation of America, and a reversal of the concept of immigration. And the primary reason he is able to succeed in his books (BEING DEAD, QUARANTINE, THE DEVIL'S LARDER, GENESIS, etc) is his uncanny gift of flowing poetic prose that can make even the most terrifying and horrendous sights and incidents an exciting literary experience.
The time of this powerful novel is sometime in the future, a time when for some unstated reason the place called America has been reduced to 'junkle', the lands being destroyed by some form of disaster (? nuclear, defoliation, uncontrolled disease?) and all that remains of the once highly technologically advanced country is debris and starving people, all struggling to migrate to the East Coast (reverse pioneerism) to board a ship to Europe for the dreams of a better life. Disease and famine are rampant and one of the victims of the deadly disease 'flux' is Margaret, a plain woman approaching middle age without ever having a lover or caring partner: she is place in The Pesthouse on Butter Hill to die. At the same time two virile brothers, Jackson and Franklin, are migrating to the East Coast, but Franklin suffers a severe knee injury and is forced to let his brother go ahead without him. Franklin seeks refuge in the Pesthouse, finds Margaret near death, and despite the possibility of contagion, nurses her to health. As the completely shaved Margaret shows signs of improvement, the two agree to gather goods from Margaret's nearby hometown Ferrytown and begin the long journey to 'freedom and promise' on the East Coast.
Ferrytown has succumbed to 'flux' and Franklin and Margaret burn the little village in an act of cremation of the inhabitants. Their trek East is disrupted by evil men who separate the two, enslaving Franklin and forcing Margaret to seek refuge with other terrified migrants, one of whom has a newborn grandchild whose father was captured into slavery with Franklin, and Margaret eventually becomes the little girl's guardian. There are extended stretches of incidents: Margaret and baby Bella take refuge in an Ark run by Baptists whose life is one without metals (the sign of the devil, read technological greed) but provide a socialist style living quarters for the winter months; Franklin is chained into slavery on work crews, one of the jobs being to excavate the buried evil metals discarded by the Baptists. Come Spring and by accident Margaret and Franklin reunite and alter their goal of sailing to Europe to opt for turning West to create a life of what America once was.
Some readers may tire of the recent number of books about post-devastation America (Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD paints a similar concept), but Crace is able to make a rather grim novel one of very pure love. He also is able to conjure thoughts that make us look around our earth and visualize what could happen should we elect not to change our current course of global and human abuse. His story also gives a quiet but healthy pause for us to feel the other side of the immigration dilemma: the remaining people are struggling to leave their land of hardship for the Gilead of Europe. And overriding all other aspects of this exceptional novel is Jim Crace's grace with prose. Highly recommended. Grady Harp
on 27 February 2009
I have just read The Pesthouse and find myself thinking about it a great deal. Similar to other reviewers, I had difficulty determining what had caused the "apocalyptic" conditions in which Franklin and Margaret find themselves. I couldn't reconcile them with a large nuclear and/or environmental event, for example, as everything was still alive (Ferrytown excepted). Then I realised that a plausible cause was simply - has the world run out of oil? Anyone who is familiar with peak oil predictions will know how dependent we have become on the availability of oil for everything from food, medicine, plastics to communication etc, therefore how utterly altered life will be when the oil runs out. The future does not necessarily equate to progress. The future may equate to the "medieval", pre-oil, pre-industrial past such as expressed in this book.
on 5 February 2015
So how is it possible to write a dull book about a post-apocalyptic USA? Here's how:
-create dull characters
-use mono-tonal prose that strives hard to be "literary" but is just flat and uninteresting
-have them do dull things like stand in line, cook, feed a baby
-make one ill, so that a sizeable part of the book is spent in a hut waiting for her to get better
-create a plague but don't discuss how society fell apart (always the most interesting part of an 'apocalypse' story)
-create plot lines that go nowhere
-build up to an ocean journey, but prevent the characters boarding the ship
-end the book with the characters boringly retracing their steps, then let the story fizzle out like a damp squib