three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
By: 
Jim Crace
user_rating: 
0

A-The PesthouseIn a dystopian future, America has withered away. Ravaging diseases, armed bands, lawlessness, illiteracy, and toxic lands have created a new Dark Ages. As a mass exodus takes place, not westward but toward the Atlantic and Europe, a mudslide kills the inhabitants of Ferrytown. One survivor, 31-year-old Margaret, bears the mark of a lethal disease—a shaved head—and is sent to a pesthouse to die. Injured and searching for shelter, farm boy Franklin Lopez finds her. They soon leave the pesthouse together to discover their fate (including encounters with slave traders and a religious, antiprogress sect), to share their hopes of survival amid the wasteland, and possibly to love again.
Nan A. Talese. 255 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0385520751

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"At one level, The Pesthouse is a suspenseful road novel; when Franklin and Margaret become separated, it joins the ranks of tales in which women fend for themselves in the wilderness. But at its heart, The Pesthouse is a meditation on deep questions about America: the costs of relentless expansion, the fate of a wasteful industrial society." Emily Barton

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The settler imagery is deliberate, reminding us of the contrast between the dark ages of Crace’s near-future and America when it was a stew-pot of hope and optimism. … Together, [Margaret and Franklin] become a latter-day Adam and Eve—and The Pesthouse becomes a quintessential American story." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"He has created a fairy-tale land steeped in mythos, its people conducting themselves in accordance with a patchwork of superstitions and quasi-religious beliefs, many of those based on hand-me-down stories about the old America—a reversion to oral tradition, in other words. … One of the central concerns to emerge is the age-old consideration of whether we are each other’s keepers." Art Winslow

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"The inevitable comparison for The Pesthouse is Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel from two decades ago, The Handmaid’s Tale, wherein the woes of the planet were addressed with a new oppressive regime. But Crace’s novel is not so elaborately depicted: The bad guys, for instance, from the rustlers to the religious reactionaries, are faceless prototypes." Gail Caldwell

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"When he’s on, as he often is here, the results are stellar. But that highway across the ravaged future has been traversed so frequently that keeping us on course requires a level of invention as high as the one that gives the Finger Baptists their eerie fascination." Francine Prose

Critical Summary

Most critics compared The Pesthouse to Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Road ( 4.5 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2006). While The Pesthouse is equally devastating in its postapocalyptic vision, the novel, less spare in its sensory descriptions, contains a mordant wit and rounded female characters. Jim Crace, the author of eight previous novels (including the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning Being Dead), compellingly chronicles a reverse migration and abandoned moral codes while raising important questions about self-preservation, industrial expansion, and our responsibility toward others. A few quibbles: some critics cited stereotypical characters, and others noted that while compelling, Crace’s subject matter has been covered in better novels.

Also by the Author

Being Dead (2000): The novel opens with the murder on a beach of a married couple in their mid-50s. From there, Crace looks backward on the couple’s day, weaving in the history of their family, their daughter, and how they met. But he also looks forward, describing how the couple’s bodies are not found for days and detailing exactly how the crabs, birds, and insects pick at their corpses.