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Once the safest, most prosperous place on earth, the United States has become sparsely populated and chaotically unstable. Across the country, families have traveled toward the one hope left: passage on a ship to Europe. As Franklin Lopez makes his way towards the ocean, he finds Margaret, a sick woman shunned to die in isolation. Tentatively, the two join forces, heading towards their future. With striking prose and a deep understanding of the American ethos, Jim Crace, one of our most consistently ambitious ...
Once the safest, most prosperous place on earth, the United States has become sparsely populated and chaotically unstable. Across the country, families have traveled toward the one hope left: passage on a ship to Europe. As Franklin Lopez makes his way towards the ocean, he finds Margaret, a sick woman shunned to die in isolation. Tentatively, the two join forces, heading towards their future. With striking prose and a deep understanding of the American ethos, Jim Crace, one of our most consistently ambitious writers, creates in The Pesthouse a masterful tale of the human drive to endure.
In this postapocalyptic picaresque from Whitbread-winner Crace (for Quarantine), America has regressed to medieval conditions. After a forgotten eco-reaction in the distant past, the U.S. government, economy and society have collapsed. The illiterate inhabitants ride horses, fight with bows and swords and scratch a meager living from farming and fishing. But with crop yields and fish runs mysteriously dwindling, most are trekking to the Atlantic coast to take ships to the promised land of Europe, gawking along the way at the ruins of freeways and machinery yards, which seem the wasteful excesses of giants. Heading east, naïve farm boy Franklin teams up with Margaret, a recovering victim of the mysterious "flux" whose shaven head (mark of the unclean) causes passersby to shun her. Their love blossoms amid misadventures in an anarchic landscape: Franklin is abducted by slave-traders; Margaret falls in with a religious sect that bans metal and deplores manual labor, symbolically repudiating America's traditional cult of progress, technology and industriousness (masculinity takes some hits, too). Crace's ninth novel leaves the U.S. impoverished, backward, fearful and abandoned by history. Less crushing than Cormac McCarthy's The Roadand less over-the-top than Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown(to name two recent postapocalyptos), Crace's fable is an engrossing, if not completely convincing, outline of the shape of things to come. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In this thoughtful and exciting post-apocalyptic tale, a man and a woman battle the elements and the forces of savage humanity to find a safe haven in a dying world. In America, a strange accident involving a landslide and released gases trapped at the bottom of a lake wipes out the population of coastal Ferrytown overnight. The sole survivors are Margaret, who had been taken to a "pesthouse" outside of town to recover or die from "flux," and the injured Franklin, left by his brother as they headed toward Ferrytown to board a ship bound for Europe and a better life. A practical, unmarried loner, Margaret teams with the younger Franklin, an immature but gentle giant, as they visit the remains of Ferrytown and then strike out for another port. They become separated when "rustlers" kidnap Franklin and leave the presumably contagious Margaret behind. Months later, the two are reunited and decide to head inland to begin a new life. Crace (Being Dead), an award-winning British writer who should be more widely appreciated, manages to give depth and complexity to characters in a post-literate society who are practically nonverbal. With the popularity of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, one hopes that there will be more interest in Crace's latest effort. Recommended for all collections.
Franklin Lopez had not been sleeping in Ferrytown, though he’d wanted to. He’d not been sleeping anywhere, in fact. Couldn’t sleep. He’d weathered such pain the day before that he’d been forced to consider what anyone (other than his brother) who’d seen the wincing recoil in his limp or examined his inflamed leg had already told him, that he shouldn’t walk another step. Certainly he shouldn’t walk downhill on such a long and hazardous gradient, unless he wanted to damage his knee beyond repair and put paid to any hopes of getting to the coast and boarding ship before the worst of the fall storms. He and his brother, Jackson (named for their parents’ small hometown on the plains), had left the journey rather late as it was. Too late, perhaps. The prairie tall–grass had already whitened and buckled. Apart from nuts and mushrooms, there was little free food to be gathered at the trackside. The first rains had arrived, and soon the winds and snow would get to work. Traveling would become more hazardous and then impossible. Only the ill–prepared, the ill–fated, and the ill–timed were still strung out thinly along the previously busy route, hoping to make the final sailings before ice and squalls shut down the sea, and anyway made shore–to–ship or ship–to–shore impossible. The wayside going east was already littered with the melancholy camps and the shallow graves—soon to be torn up by wolves—of those whose bodies couldn’t take the journey, those who had been fatally chilled by wading through rivers, those who had starved and weakened, those who had been thrown by their horses or poisoned by their suppers, those who had been crushed between the fears of going forward and the dread of going back.
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.
So Franklin understood that he could not readily afford to waste much time nursing such a slight injury. But neither could he afford the purchase of a horse or passage on a wagon where he could rest his leg. What should he do, then? Cut a stick and limp down to the coast? “Just put up with the pain,” as Jackson advised? Carry on regardless, let nature take its course? He’d tried the stick, the putting up with pain; he’d trusted nature's course. His knee got worse. So finally he conceded. He’d have to find shelter and stay exactly where he was, high in the ridges, to sit out the swelling. It was an exasperating setback and something that he was slow to tell his brother. But what other choice was there? His knee was too bloated to bend and too painful to take any weight. The flesh between his ankle and his thigh was sausaging with every step he took. The skin was stretched and cloudy. One more afternoon of walking could lame him for a month. A day or two of rest might rescue him. Besides, this injury was not a failure that he should feel ashamed of, no matter what the stiff expression on his brother’s face seemed to suggest. He’d done better than some to get so far—more than sixty testing days of walking from the battered, weather–poisoned village of his birth—without much damage beyond the usual aches and pains, the usual broken skin, and this damned knee, he told himself. He’d be a fool to take any chances now if he wanted to enjoy the undulating rewards of the sailboat deck, and then to put ashore this year in the other place, whatever that might be, with his pith intact enough to make a good start.
“It’d be crazy to take the risk, Jacko,” he told his brother at last, coloring with self–consciousness as he spoke. He was still prone to being seized by sudden, girlish reddeners whenever he least wanted it.
“Only the crazy make it to the coast” was the older man’s reply. Yes, that was the wisdom of the road: you had to be crazy enough to take the risks, because the risks were unavoidable. “Well, then, Franklin Lopez? You say.”
“So say it again.”
“Well, do what you want, if you’re the crazy one. I’m staying here till it’s good enough, my knee.”
“How long’s ’till'?”
“Three days, four days, I guess.”
“I guess a month!”
Franklin knew better than to argue with his volcanic brother. He did not even shake his head. He watched Jackson mull over their problem for a few moments more, his eyes half closed, his lips moving, his fingers counting days. “That knee’ll snare us here a month—if not a month, then half a month. Too long,” Jackson added finally. “By then the winter’ll be on us like a pack of wolves. You hear me, little brother?” Little brother? Less in everything. “You sit down now, then that’s the end of it. We’re carrion.”
This was their final argument, the last of many, with Franklin daring to protest that his “crazy” brother should press on to the coast without him (but not meaning it—who’d want to be abandoned to the winter and the woods, to be buried, along with the trail, beneath layers of mud, leaves, and snow, even if it meant a few days free of bullying and censure?) and Jackson insisting that he’d stick by his infuriating, timid, blushing sibling till the last if he really had to (but resenting Franklin's physical weakness, his infuriating, girlish laugh that seemed to buckle his whole body, his dreaminess, his hypochondria, and saying so repeatedly—“That bitching knee’s not half as bad as you make out,” and “Where’d we be if every time you got a touch of charley horse you wanted three days’ rest?”—until Franklin said, “Ma’s hearing every word you speak”).
The brothers should not have taken their ma’s advice two months before when they’d “embarked” so late in the season of migration. “Carry nothing with you,” she’d said, “then no one will pay you any heed. And you can hurry on.” So they had left the plains equipped with just their boots, their knives, a double set of clothes rainproofed with deer fat, a spark stone and some tinder in a pouch, a water bag and a back sack each, full of nothing–worth–stealing or so they thought: some cheese, dried fruit, salted pork, and a couple of ground tarps.
To some extent their mother had been correct. They had moved fast and no one had bothered them yet, while others among the emigrants who'd been rash enough to travel in the company of carts and animals or had packed a year's supply of food and their prize possessions—best pots, jewelry, good cloth, good tools—paid a price for their comfort. The more they had, the more cruelly they were robbed, not by the other travelers but by the ones who wouldn’t emigrate until they’d picked the carcass of America clean. But possibly two men like them—young, strong, and imposingly tall—would not be robbed even if they were walking naked with shards of polished silver in their beards. Jackson and Franklin Lopez, together, looked too capable of taking care of themselves to invite the attentions of thieves. And this had made them much valued as companions by other travelers, especially as their extra strength would always be prized by any wagoner, for example, who faced a hill or mud and would recompense them with a meal if only they would be his heavy horses for the afternoon.
No, Ma was right, wagons were slow and cumbersome. They might not have stomachs, feet, and knees to let their owners down, but their axles snapped if stressed too much and they were unsteady on gradients and hesitant at fords, with good reason. Rivers loved to test the strength of vehicles. A river's always pleased to have the opportunity to dismantle a wagon, to tear it into planks and carry it away in bits, together with its wagoner. Horses were less hesitant. They were fast and muscular. They didn't refuse the rivers or the gradients so long as there were sticks and sugar lumps to urge them on, but they were flesh and bones and prone to injury and sickness. Just like men and women. But just like men and women, horses’ running costs were high, for oats and hay, board and lodging, tolls and tack.
Pack mules were the toughest of the lot. And cheap. More so than hinnies. A bucket of cottonwood bark or thistle and bitter water every night was all they needed. “If a rabbit can pass, a mule will pass,” the mulemen boasted. But mules were stubborn, too. Both placid and stubborn. You could twitch the ropes in their lip rings or tug on their jerk lines until they bled, but still they wouldn’t move unless it suited them. They had the patience to resist forever. The brothers had been wise, so far, to travel without animals or wheels.
But now, with their few possessions laid out around them at the top of the descent and the first indications that the coming night would be a wet and cold one, the brothers—Franklin especially—regretted that they had not equipped themselves better for such foreseeable emergencies. There were no cooking pots, they had no camping supplies, and except for a few scraps the store of food had been finished a month before. Their ma—she was far too old and metally at fifty–four, she’d said, to join them on their journey, too fat to go that far—was at that very moment most likely sitting on her stoop, rubbing her veins, and looking out across the now abandoned steads at the family cart and the three old roans for which she had no use. If Jackson and Franklin had only traveled with those horses and the cart, her sons would be at the river crossing by now and Franklin would not be limping. Or at least they’d have some warmth and free shelter for the night, up on the rapidly cooling hillside. But they had never been the sort to disoblige their ma. Big but biddable, they were, for her. Big and unprepared for what the world could do to them.
Now the brothers had to face the prospect of some nights apart—the very thing that Ma had said should not occur—while Jackson went ahead to sell his labor for a day or two and obtain some food. He’d leave his brother with their knives, the leaking water bag, the spark stone, the pair of tarps, their change of clothes, and make do trading with his strength and overcoat. That heavy, much–loved overcoat that his mother had stitched together from four farm goats would have to go, despite the colder days ahead. It was the one thing the brothers had that, though it had not quite been admired, had certainly been noticed by strangers. Being noticed might prove to be a handicap as they got closer to the lawless coast. So trading on the goats would be advisable. With any luck, Jackson would soon return with provisions and possibly the part share of an onward–going horse, or at least the purchase of a cart ride among the women, the children, and the old for his unmanly brother. Once in Ferrytown, if the worse came to the worst, they could pass the winter in relative safety. For the time being, though, Franklin would have an uncomfortable few nights on the mountainside; Jackson would have a proper bed. The best that Franklin could hope for was a mattress of pinecones.
Franklin might not be on his own entirely. Already he could hear the chirring of insects, the whistle of quails, and the barking of deer. And there was a boulder hut—evidently occupied, though possibly by lunatics or bandits, Jackson warned, amused to alarm his brother—on the edge of the tree line a hundred paces off, where a large but unmaintained bald had been burned clear by hunters. There was no movement from within, so far as they could tell, just smoke. “Keep your distance. That’s best.”
And Franklin would not be entirely out of touch with his brother and their shared hopes. Despite the pain in his knee, he had succeeded in reaching the final woody swaggings in the sash of hills where there were almost uninterrupted views to the east. His hopes of getting free from America could be kept alive by a distant prospect of the lake, the town, and the longed–for river crossing, after which, they’d been told, the going was less hilly, though punishing in more unusual ways.
It was late afternoon when his elder, tougher, taller brother shook his hand and set off down the track, promising to come back to the swaggings within three days. The dusk was already pushing daylight back into the sun. Jackson would barely reach Ferrytown before dark. But he was fit and well, not injured yet, and unlike all the travelers still on the descent with their carts and sledges, their mules and wheelbarrows, he was unencumbered by anything other than his coat. Unlike the mule trains, with their whistle–nagging masters, and the packhorses, with their bridle bells foretelling all the merriments ahead, he descended silently down the twists of Butter Hill, as it was known locally. (A hill so tortuous and uneven, they claimed, that any milk carried up or down it would be jolted and churned into butter.) You could not miss him, though, even in that gloaming. He was so much taller than the rest and hurrying like a man who was counting on a hot supper, and walking even taller than himself, actually, catlike and stretched (while Franklin walked shrinkingly, his shoulders bunched). The pinto patterns of the goatskins marked him out as someone of account, the sort of man who should be welcome and respected anywhere he went.
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.
1. Jim Crace never reveals the exact cause of America’s future decline. He also chooses not to reveal the exact timeline for the setting of the novel. Why do you think the author chooses not to reveal important details?
2. The novel is set in a lawless wasteland where organized society has collapsed. What aspects of human nature are revealed as a result of the collapse of rule-of-law?
3. Margaret essentially kidnaps baby Jackie. Is her act justifiable? Consider whether morality is an absolute, or subject to circumstances.
4. The Finger Baptists offer an alternative to the chaos of a lawless society. Consider the role organized religion plays in our society. Is organized religion necessary to maintain social order and structure?
5. The Finger Baptists consider metal the root of all evil. Discuss examples of current technology which may have negative side-effects on society’s well being.
6. During the massacre of the Finger Baptists at the hands of the horsemen, the author notes that not one of the forty slaves dares pick up a weapon and attack the horsemen, despite the likelihood of success. What is the author saying about human nature? Consider the world’s response to recent events in Rwanda and Darfur — is it human nature to be cowed by aggression?
7. Upon reaching the East Coast, Margaret discovers there is very little room for women on the ships bound for Europe. Only young, attractive women are offered passage, typically in exchange for marriage proposals in Europe. Consider the social status of women in the novel. What factors may have contributed to a change in women’s status?
8. The novel ends with the words: “Going westward, they would go free.” The words harken back to the aspirations of 19th century American settlers. As symbols of America, what values are Franklin and Margaret rediscovering?
9. Following the Second World War, the United States emerged as a global superpower. Only sixty years later, The Pesthouse foresees a shockingly bleak future for the United States. Discuss the current state of American affairs and whether the United States is destined, like past great empires, to decline and fall.
Posted March 16, 2008
Posted March 29, 2013
Posted March 24, 2010
The books style is not bad and the writing good, and even the concept behind it interesting, but with a little knowledge of science and some faith in the human spirit this books story soon becomes unbelievable. The fact that there is so little knowledge of medicine and with folk lore and superstition as all the characters have to use in their daily lives it quickly becomes depressing. If a great disaster happened would we lose all medical knowledge? Would all learning and knowledge disappear? I hope not. But that is what has happened here.
All in all not a bad read but a depressing one.
Posted July 2, 2007
Jim Crace takes more risks in his stories than most authors writing today. In THE PESTHOUSE he manages to create a love story with seeds in disease, death, futuristic semi-annihilation of America, and a reversal of the concept of immigration. And the primary reason he is able to succeed in his books (BEING DEAD, QUARANTINE, THE DEVIL'S LARDER, GENESIS, etc) is his uncanny gift of flowing poetic prose that can make even the most terrifying and horrendous sights and incidents an exciting literary experience. The time of this powerful novel is sometime in the future, a time when for some unstated reason the place called America has been reduced to 'junkle', the lands being destroyed by some form of disaster (? nuclear, defoliation, uncontrolled disease?) and all that remains of the once highly technologically advanced country is debris and starving people, all struggling to migrate to the East Coast (reverse pioneerism) to board a ship to Europe for the dreams of a better life. Disease and famine are rampant and one of the victims of the deadly disease 'flux' is Margaret, a plain woman approaching middle age without ever having a lover or caring partner: she is place in The Pesthouse on Butter Hill to die. At the same time two virile brothers, Jackson and Franklin, are migrating to the East Coast, but Franklin suffers a severe knee injury and is forced to let his brother go ahead without him. Franklin seeks refuge in the Pesthouse, finds Margaret near death, and despite the possibility of contagion, nurses her to health. As the completely shaved Margaret shows signs of improvement, the two agree to gather goods from Margaret's nearby hometown Ferrytown and begin the long journey to 'freedom and promise' on the East Coast. Ferrytown has succumbed to 'flux' and Franklin and Margaret burn the little village in an act of cremation of the inhabitants. Their trek East is disrupted by evil men who separate the two, enslaving Franklin and forcing Margaret to seek refuge with other terrified migrants, one of whom has a newborn grandchild whose father was captured into slavery with Franklin, and Margaret eventually becomes the little girl's guardian. There are extended stretches of incidents: Margaret and baby Bella take refuge in an Ark run by Baptists whose life is one without metals (the sign of the devil, read technological greed) but provide a socialist style living quarters for the winter months Franklin is chained into slavery on work crews, one of the jobs being to excavate the buried evil metals discarded by the Baptists. Come Spring and by accident Margaret and Franklin reunite and alter their goal of sailing to Europe to opt for turning West to create a life of what America once was. Some readers may tire of the recent number of books about post-devastation America (Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD paints a similar concept), but Crace is able to make a rather grim novel one of very pure love. He also is able to conjure thoughts that make us look around our earth and visualize what could happen should we elect not to change our current course of global and human abuse. His story also gives a quiet but healthy pause for us to feel the other side of the immigration dilemma: the remaining people are struggling to leave their land of hardship for the Gilead of Europe. And overriding all other aspects of this exceptional novel is Jim Crace's grace with prose. Highly recommended. Grady HarpWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2007
British writer Jim Crace has always excelled in fables. In novels like i Quarantine /i (1997) and i Being Dead /i (1999), he shaped graceful, glorious tales which leaped fearlessly into big issues like life, art and death. Given his track record, expectations are high for i The Pesthouse /i , especially given the premise. This is set in a post-apocalyptic America, where society and the standard of living has regressed to a mediaeval age. Americans are migrating eastwards, drawn by the hope of a promised land across the sea. Franklin is one such migrant and he is joined on his journey and Margaret, a survivor of the 'flux'. i The Pesthouse /i is brimming with potential. The idea of an exhausted America the evocative reversal of the American ideal of 'Westward ho!' and the post 9/11 suggestiveness of an American society that has become closed and suspicious. Unfortunately, it feels tentative and meandering. The narrative feels unfocused. It begins with a montage which, though, vivid, feels scattershot. It is not until a few chapters in that you finally discover who the protagonists of the story are. Franklin and Margaret's journey is drawn out and episodic. It lacks the tension and cohesion of Cormac McCarthy's i The Road /i , another recent novel about a pair of travellers in a post-apocalyptic landscape. While the story flows steadily enough and Crace still displays beautiful turns of phrases in his characteristically sensual style, this lacks punch.
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