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The Pesthouse by Jim Crace (2007) 308 p.

The Pesthouse is a post-apocalyptic novel set in an unspecified future America. Technology has regressed to a medieval level and brave pilgrims make the journey east to seek ships for passage to a safer, more prosperous Europe. The novel opens with a landslide releasing noxious gases which kill the sleeping inhabitants of Ferrytown, a small river settlement which is a popular waystation for eastbound travellers. The only survivors are Franklin, a young man headed for the coast whose brother left him behind on a hillside for the evening because he hurt his ankle, and Margaret, a townswoman suffering from disease who has been shorn of hair and sent for quarantine in the “pesthouse,” a wooden shack out in the hills. Following the destruction of the town, Margaret and Franklin decide to travel to the coast together.

Crace is a poet first and a writer of prose second. Like Harvest, the only other book of his that I’ve read, The Pesthouse seems curiously detached from the world it inhabits. Much time is spent inside Margaret and Franklin’s heads, on the details of their movements and actions, on the stark reality of their landscapes. It’s all very well-written, but it leaves the plot of the book undernourished. There are various misfortunes, acts of violence, and run-ins with bandits gangs, none of which – for all their gory description – feel particularly menacing. It lacks the gut-wrenching savagery of a book like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or even something like The Walking Dead. Perhaps this is because Crace isn’t really interested in the mechanics of domination and predation in a post-apocalyptic world, and only inserted them because it seemed necessary; or perhaps I was just never invested enough in the characters or Crace’s writing style to care much.

I liked Harvest well enough, but found it ultimately unmemorable. I liked The Pesthouse less, although I can understand why some readers might appreciate it. Jim Crace is a talented writer, but I don’t think he’s my type.

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February 2015