Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Pesthouse

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.

To purchase this book, and you should do so right now, click HERE!
You can read an excerpt, HERE!

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6 comments:

stefanie said...

Great review. This sounds like a fantastic book. I'll definitely be getting myself a copy!

Matt said...

I read Being Dead, and this one sounds like a great read and quasi-Saramago!

cipriano said...

Yes, I do highly recommend this book.
It was so good that it makes me want to read several other of Crace's things.... especially Quarantine and Being Dead.
Cheers!

SFP said...

You should definitely read Quarantine, Cip. In fact, Crace may have written it especially for you!

Looking forward to starting The Pesthouse. I'm so glad it's not getting short-changed (at least among book bloggers) by The Road.

Beth said...

Ordered it from Amazon.ca yesterday - based on your recommendation.
The power of blogging!

cipriano said...

Susan, I definitely want to read Quarantine, yes.

Beth, that is awesome that you ordered the book, sort of as a result of my review's encouraging words.
You will not be disappointed in this book, I promise you.
-- Cip