Book review: The Pesthouse

The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace, is an achingly beautiful book, haunting in the way that many stories aren't anymore these days, laced with a dreamlike quality that will mesmerise readers and make you follow the hidden path down to the secret garden where the snake charmer plays her flute.

As the year's first post was about dystopias, I thought it would be appropriate that the first book review be about the perfect example of a modern dystopian novel. The book was published in 2007, which makes it a relative newcomer to the dystopian field, but I hope it eventually becomes a classic.

Crace's novel, like many of the best speculative fiction works, is more concerned with human behaviour and the travails of being human than describing the exact nature of the apocalypse or the science behind the new world order. A pesthouse is, historically, a place where patients with terminal illnesses like the delicately ameliorised "consumption" (we know it by the medical term tuberculosis) go to basically await death. It's essentially a form of quarantine. 

In The Pesthouse, America is living in the wake of a mysterious post-apocalyptic event which has seen it revert to a land of superstition and illiteracy. There is no medical technology, and people are living a sort of hardscrabble agrarian lifestyle, which suggests that the fallout was probably not nuclear. Perhaps a virus of some description, though that's only speculation.

Pesthouses have come back into fashion again, and the heroine of the story, Margaret, is sent there after she contracts an illness, the symptoms of which are rather vague, but it's implied that no one survives such a condition. So, after getting every hair follicle on her body scraped down, she awaits death in the pesthouse, which, surprisingly enough, doesn't come for her, but rather for everyone else apart from the male protagonist, Franklin.

"Everybody died at night," begins the book, and that's your first clue that this is a book about journeys, physical as well as metaphorical. The physical part of the journey, after Franklin and Margaret, the last two survivors of their little town, find each other, is in a setting that eerily reminds you of The Road, though without the cannibalism.

Since this is a book about the human condition, it's no surprise that the heart of the story is about love, of all sorts, not just romantic. There's the bond between lovers, but also the relationship between parent and child, grandparents and grandchildren. It is not a bildungsroman, and yet you could almost envision it as such, if the characters were a little younger.

They are certainly sheltered enough to be shocked at the small (and big) evils that the world can dole out, and wide-eyed enough to be able to bounce back relatively quickly. There is a certain kind of bitter humour in the book too - for example, the strange section about the Finger Baptists, a religious cult where the leaders have everything done for them to the extent that they can no longer use their hands. It gives rise to possibly one of the funniest lines in the book: "a man can itch in many places".

I have read reviews that criticised the book for covering ground that's well travelled and in many ways, this is true. There is nothing new under the sun, etc. Crace doesn't have any new insight into the genre, and there aren't any great twists in the plot that makes it particularly action-packed. It's just a well-assembled, quiet story, with appealing characters and quirky little scenes that will captivate you and draw you in.

Have you read The Pesthouse?

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