The Pesthouse

The Pesthouse

A Novel

Book - 2007
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Random House, Inc.
During the years of America’s ascendancy, the great ships brought waves of immigrants to the promised land. In sight of the Statute of Liberty, the huddled masses disembarked in search of the American dream. In the imagined future, the great ships play a different role. In a work of outstanding originality, Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse envisions a future America in ruins and a reversal of history: desperate Americans seeking passage to the promised land of Europe.

Crace’s future United States is a lawless wasteland. The economy collapses, industry ceases, and the remaining populace returns to subsistence farming. The only hope rests with reaching the east coast and obtaining passage by ship to Europe.

Like many Americans, Franklin Lopez and his brother, Jackson, leave their farm to begin the long trek east. Within sight of their goal, Franklin is forced, by an enflamed knee, to stop. While Jackson continues forward, Franklin seeks rest in a seemingly abandoned stone building in a forest. Inside, Jackson discovers Margaret. Margaret is feverish with a deadly illness and is confined to the Pesthouse with little hope of recovery. Franklin should flee. Instead, he is drawn to Margaret and stays by her side while she sweats out the fever. After her recovery, Margaret joins Franklin on the journey east.

This journey is fraught with danger. Rule-of-law no longer exists and the land is plagued by roaming bandits and slave traders. The threat of danger slowly draws Margaret and Franklin closer to each other. A bond of love begins to form. They also draw comfort from joining a group of like-minded pilgrims. The illusion of safety is soon shattered. While resting from a day of travel, the group is taken captive by mounted bandits. Franklin is taken as a slave. On account of her recent illness, Margaret is spared along with an elderly couple and a baby. Margaret must continue on without Franklin.

A bewildered Margaret slowly pushes eastward with the elderly couple and the baby. She is eventually separated from them and must take sole responsibility for the baby. With hope fading, Margaret stumbles upon the refuge of the Ark; a religious community which provides food and shelter in exchange for denouncing all metal technologies. Margaret accepts the laws of the Ark and is allowed to enter with her baby. While safe, Margaret secretly hopes to be reunited with Franklin.

Their paths cross again under tragic circumstances. The Ark is attacked by the same mounted bandits that enslaved Franklin. While the Ark is looted and the community massacred, Margaret and her baby escape. They are reunited with Franklin by chance following a slave uprising in the vicinity of the Ark. Narrowly escaping their pursuers, Franklin, Margaret and the baby continue the journey to the East coast.

Upon finally reaching their destination, the dream is shattered. Margaret discovers there is no room for women with young children on the ships bound to Europe. There is no choice but to turn back. With the end of one dream a new one is born. Inspired by their growing love, Franklin and Margaret decide to return west, with the baby, as a family.

Jim Crace concludes “going westward, they would go free.”

Publisher: [Toronto] : Bond Street Books, c2007
ISBN: 9780385662635
Characteristics: 255 p. ; 25 cm
Alternative Title: Pest house


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Jan 07, 2017

Yes, I agree, this is not "The Road", and should be read on its own merits. The small sparks of happiness, contentment and, yes, love, made this a much less stark read than many books of this genre. I liked it. The premise is that in the distant past something happened in North America that reduced it to a subsistence peasant-type society with very little in the way of metal or other manufactured goods. Many are trekking east to take ship to Europe where the story is things are more than grand. They are stupendously great with jobs for everyone and the trees just dripping with fruit - the proverbial golden land where every dream can come true. Who knows if this is real? No one; but they keep going.
The journey is fraught with dangers, but also some good along the way. Along with the thieves, slavers, scavengers, religious fanatics we have been meeting in other post-apocalyptic stories there are still small farms and sympathetic souls. The ending gives us a glimmer of hope for the characters, and for ourselves should we ever land in similar circumstances.

Nov 13, 2015

Premise is promising...totally off the mark for me. Maybe a few pearls of wisdom, but I kept thinking 'will this every get going, then will it ever end' - I quit it. Give me The Road & Far North.

Jul 03, 2015

Couldn't put it down. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Even made my book club read it. I also made them read "The Road", so we could compare the two!

May 12, 2015

A fairly readable book, different enough to hold the attention, though it could easily have been set almost anytime in human history instead of the future. I wasn't tempted at any point to put it down and read something else.

Jul 18, 2013

This book is not THE ROAD. I wish it were THE ROAD. That's what I kept finding myself thinking as I read THE PESTHOUSE--this would be better if it were THE ROAD. At one point I even said to one of the characters, "If you'd read THE ROAD, you would know that you should be a bit more careful here." And then later, "See! I told you."

The thing is, everything about THE PESTHOUSE is good, maybe even great, but it somehow lacks the economy of language and the gray terror and desperation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winner.

Clearly, there's no reason THE PESTHOUSE should have aspired to just those traits, no reason it should have tried to be THE ROAD. Both novels play with history, never revealing how exactly the characters came to these roads or why they think the coast is the place with the most. And both novels use crazy archaic words--here we have "swarf," tetherings," "susurrus"--but perhaps where I appreciate THE PESTHOUSE the most is where it diverged, where it went surprisingly direct (see the opening sentence: "Everybody died at night") or playful (a passage about apple juice and a coat that acts as a homing beacon, for example) or listy ("But there are always some awake in the small times of the morning—the lovemakers, for instance, the night workers, the ones with stone-hard beds or aching backs, the ones with nagging consciences or bladders, the sick") or sociological (Crace seems most interested in creating and then fleshing out little worlds within his apocalypse--the capitalist ferrytowners, the antimetal zealots, the sex-selling survivalist outpost of widows). Oh, and there's a love story (not sure what I thought about that).

But one more way in which my reading experience of THE PESTHOUSE resembled (though in a flawed way) my reading of THE ROAD: McCarthy loads his novel with all kinds of biblical imagery and language. It's even possible to read THE ROAD as an incarnation story--a loving, self-sacrificing boy is born into a time of great darkness. To some degree at least, I think McCarthy planned this. Not so with THE PESTHOUSE. Still, if one edits an interview with the philosopher Richard Kearney while reading this novel (for THE OTHER JOURNAL--you should subscribe!), as I happened to do, then one can't help but see theological implications written all over everything.

In the interview, Kearney articulates the coming of the Messiah in a way that I hadn't heard before. He talks about the passage in Matthew where Jesus basically says that any time we help someone in need, he is there. Kearney says that every time a person offers such an invitation or gift to the stranger, the Messiah becomes present. The incarnation is happening again and again, he says. And strangely enough, THE PESTHOUSE, a book that in some ways makes a mockery of organized religion, is all about these kinds of encounters between strangers. Sometimes the strangers do little things to help one another, sometimes they simply avoid one another, and sometimes they do evil to such strangers (a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah, if you will). Elsewhere in that interview, Kearney considers whether the Messiah was present at the time and place of one of our world's greatest atrocities, Auschwitz, but here in THE PESTHOUSE we get to ponder whether the Messiah is present at the apocalypse.

PS This is a strange review! Whoohoo!

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