Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Pesthouse

The Pesthouse by Jim Crace
Doubleday Canada, 2009
Hardcover, 255 pages
ISBN-13: 9780641994852
highly recommended

Once the safest, most prosperous place on earth, the United States is now a barren, lawless, scantly populated wasteland. Across the country, families have packed up their belongings to travel eastward toward the one hope left: passage on a ship to Europe.
Franklin Lopez is only days away from the ocean when an injury forces him to stop. He comes upon an isolated hovel, where he finds Margaret, a woman suffering from a deadly infection and confined to The Pesthouse to sweat out her fever. The two join forces, and make their way through the stark ruins of old America.
A compelling novel that imagines an America devastated by disease and famine, where the only hope for survival lies in passage overseas.

My Thoughts:

The Pesthouse by Jim Crace is set in a postapocalyptic United States. Many of the inhabitants are trying to reach the east coast, following rumors of ships that will take them to a better life (Europe, I presume). It really is happenstance that precipitates Franklin teaming up with Margaret for the journey to reach the coast. Their trek is full of peril and human predators. The Pesthouse is also supposed to be a love story, but it is really more a story of coincidental traveling companions who develop an appreciation for each other out of need which develops into love.

In The Pesthouse, many years (certainly decades, perhaps over a century) after the unnamed disaster, the United States has regressed to an agrarian, almost medieval society whose inhabitants don't understand the leftover remnants of cities, machinery, or highways. We are never given an explanation of why America would erode into a backward, medieval-style agrarian society after the disaster. Personally, I found it hard to truly believe the USA would go so far in this direction so, in some ways, it felt like a chastisement for our love of technology and industriousness.

While Crace is technically a good writer, in this novel his tone remains detached from his characters and so I remained detached from them. While I was interested in their adventures and what would happen, I wasn't really emotionally involved with the characters. I was fairly involved with the story, and then it seemed to lose me, perhaps because there was no incentive to become more involved with the characters and what happened to them.

The Pesthouse certainly invites comparison to other recently published postapocalyptic novels set in the United States: The Road, Jamestown, and World Made by Hand. The Road is a much darker, bleaker novel (and much better) in comparison to The Pesthouse. The Pesthouse is a gentler postapocalyptic tale that isn't as over the top as Jamestown but perhaps a step above World Made by Hand. Readers who cannot stomach the wrenching dismal hopelessness in The Road, will appreciate The Pesthouse more. While I generally enjoyed The Pesthouse and would recommend it, the detachment from the main characters takes it down to a Highly Recommended novel.


Everybody died at night. Most were sleeping at the time, the lucky ones who were too tired or drunk or deaf or wrapped too tightly in their spreads to hear the hillside, destabilized by rain, collapse and slip beneath the waters of the lake. So these sleepers (six or seven hundred, at a guess; no-one ever came to count or claim the dead) breathed their last in passive company, unwarned and unexpectedly, without experiencing the fear. Their final moments, dormant in America. opening

This used to be America, this river crossing in the ten-month stretch of land, this sea-to-sea. It used to be the safest place on earth. pg. 6

Feet failed first; nothing could prepare the feet for this. Then the stomach gave way, soured by ditch and pond water and the usual makeshift meals of hardtack, jerked meat, pine nuts, and scrapple—and, in the brothers’ case on one occasion, a stew made from a hand–caught rabbit too diseased to run away, with nettle tops as greens. And if the stomach survived that, then the less sturdy travelers were betrayed by bones and joints, starting at their knees and working upward, pain on pain, through hips, up spine, and into the shoulders and the neck until there was nothing left to sour, fail, or be betrayed except the soft pith of the head. Once summer turned and limped away, its sack crammed full of leaves, the route was challenging. Within a month, the weather would have mugged the final stragglers and the roads and ways would be empty again, untrodden till spring. pg. 8

Franklin had not dared say so to his brother, but he was more than nervous of the nights ahead. It was not so much the unlikely prospects on such a busy route of cougars, bears, and snakes or the more certain prospect (on such a busy route) of human parasites that bothered him. Although he might not be as imposing as his brother—he was much lighter, easier in his skin, and so less dangerous—he was still big and strong enough to take good care of himself should he have no choice, even with Jackson by now far beyond his call. He had two knives. And there were rocks and branches with which to defend himself if any creature, beast or man, were ill–advised enough to take him on. But he was uneasy nevertheless, for no man’s tall enough to fend off darkness, shadows, damp, and all the lonely terrors of the night. pg 14

The flux was carried in and carried out by travelers, or by their goods, or by their animals, or in their bedding, or in their clothes. The illness was an intermittent visitor, unwelcome but well known. pg. 18

There was no choice but to be hardhearted. If any of the travelers were ill, they were thrown out of town at once.No bed or sustenance for them. But if the victim was a Ferrytowner, the Pesthouse was the only option. pg. 19

The toughest maladies have wings. There are no fees or charges high enough to deter the flux; no palisade is that tall. pg. 20

The sun occasions modesty. It disapproves of flesh. pg. 21

So long as I draw breath, I'll never forget her staying in the house so she wouldn't have to wave us goodbye. I shouldn't have left her there. I shouldn't have. pg. 228


Jeanne said...

I liked the picture of America in this one; there was so much detail about the place that I didn't miss any more characterization of the people.

Lori L said...

I understand why you would feel that way, Jeanne. Personally, in my final analysis, I felt so detached from the characters that I would have benefited from more emotional involvement with them.

Literary Feline said...

I have a copy of this one packed away in my TBR boxes. I'd actually forgotten what it was about until reading your description, Lori.

I am glad you liked this one even with it's flaws. The Road is another one I really need to read one of these days.