Review

The Pesthouse

by Jim Crace

Question: How many reviewers can compare or reference
"inevitable comparisons" of Jim Crace's THE PESTHOUSE to Cormac
McCarthy's THE ROAD?

Answer: Every single reviewer of THE PESTHOUSE, that's how
many.

And this isn't fair, because while both books deal with a
post-apocalyptic America, that is where the similarities end. Where
McCarthy writes a bleak fable, Crace pens a sort of pilgrim's
progress-cum-love story. There is bleakness aplenty, but Crace's
intentions are different from McCarthy's.

Oh, wait. I'm comparing the books. See? It's hard not to, since
both writers (one American, one British) both envision a future
United States that looks far worse than anything P.D. James did in
THE CHILDREN OF MEN. In THE PESTHOUSE, the reader is dropped into
an America that has regressed to a sort of superstitious
proto-agrarian society (metal is used when absolutely necessary,
such as in carts, but is looked at askance for other uses, when
wood, clay and stone can work just as well).

The reader is also dropped into the unfortunate Ferrytown, which is
about to be wiped out (even the flies) by a fast-moving and
fast-acting plague. The only survivor is Margaret, whose earlier
strain of what townspeople call "the flux" resulted in her being
shorn of all hair as a warning and left, alone and desperately ill,
in a small "pesthouse" away from her family. The remaining
population of the country is slowly but surely moving eastward in
order to try to catch boats to Europe. When a young man named
Franklin becomes separated from his brother during their own
journey, he stumbles onto the hut and Margaret. Thus begins their
odd pairing that Crace quietly and sympathetically moves to a
romantic and even heroic turn.

Naturally this is a bleak book, so the course of Franklin and
Margaret's love cannot run smoothly. After Franklin (despite a bum
knee) manages to cart Margaret and all of the possessions he can
cadge from her deceased family's home across a river (it's truly
lovely when he remembers to bring a pot of "kitchen mint" along),
he is captured by post-apocalyptic highwaymen and the two are
separated for a long while. Margaret's captors, the "Finger
Baptists," are some of the creepiest fictional cult villains to
come along in a while. Shunning metal completely, they have allowed
their hands to wither so that they never touch the evil
stuff.

I can't help but compare THE PESTHOUSE to THE ROAD one last time.
When I learned of Franklin and Margaret's fate, I had a sense of
hope that never enters McCarthy's world. In other words, Crace's
intentions are different from McCarthy's. Don't read one of these
novels and believe you've read them both.

Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 18, 2011

The Pesthouse
by Jim Crace

  • Publication Date: May 6, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307278956
  • ISBN-13: 9780307278951