The Pesthouse - Book of the Month
by Jim Crace
The opening scene of THE PESTHOUSE, Jim Crace’s ninth novel, is as ever, incredible. Once again he deals with human tragedy horribly, deftly and quietly. A whole town is suffocated, gassed in its sleep by a toxic cloud caused by a landslip into the lake that supplied the town with its living:
“Shaken up and shaken out in one great flatulence, the water fizzed and belched until all the gases were discharged, to form a heavy, deadly, surface-hugging, cloud………”
Margaret comes from Ferrytown, but she escaped the poisoning as she, ironically, awaited her own death from the “flux” in the pesthouse, a structure in the hills designed to isolate the diseased until death or, perhaps, miraculously, recovery.
Franklin is on the road with his brother, Jackson, heading west like so many others to reach the sea, hoping to find the ships they’d heard about that would carry them across the ocean to who knows where away from the anarchic, medieval, dangerous and toxic land that this America of the future had become. When Franklin injures his knee the brothers part, agreeing to meet later, each knowing the improbability of this.
Franklin discovers Margaret in the pesthouse and after her recovery they decide to attempt the journey west together. Inevitably they are separated and this is where the story, like its protagonists, loses its way a little, reading more like a film script than a novel. Margaret and Franklin’s paths diverge and their adventures become somewhat hackneyed (though there are some choice moments, such as the encounter with the Baptist sect which is headed by the “Helpless Gentlemen” where Jim Crace is true to his tongue-in-cheek form). Eventually they make it to the coast and here, again, the writer’s descriptive powers come to the fore, bringing alive their first sightings of the ocean, the massive evacuation ships and the seething crowds of would-be emigrants waiting to see if they are to be one of the lucky ones who’ll be accepted aboard (as it turns out, only healthy young men and single young women need apply). The suggestion of current migration around our planet does not fail to impress.
Notwithstanding the shaky sections this is a great read. Inevitable comparisons have been made with Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, which was published shortly before THE PESTHOUSE, but where McCarthy’s future is a dark place, Crace leaves us with some (if a little Hollywoodish) hope.
Read our interview with Jim Crace.