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The Pesthouse by Jim Crace

1/01/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Pesthouse in the USA - or Buy The Pesthouse in the UK

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pub: Picador/PanMacmillan. 309 page hardback. 12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-330-44562-7.

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Over the years there have been many post-apocalyptic novels, varying from Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker' to Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'. Sometimes, the cause of the collapse of society is known. At the height of the Cold War, it was the nuclear winter arising from nuclear missile strikes that was one of the factors in Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's 'False Dawn' or a deadly disease as in Stephen King's 'The Stand'. David Brin gave the survivors hope in 'The Postman' but that is not always the case.

Jim Crace describes himself as a fabulist. He haunts the edges of Science Fiction without quite crossing over into the genre. As in McCarthy's 'The Road', in 'The Pesthouse' the calamity has already happened and people are trying to get on with their lives. The setting here used to be America but the continent is now reduced to a pioneer level of civilisation but instead of people moving west to seek their fortune, they are moving east in the hope of getting a boat to across the sea. Since no-one comes back from Europe, they have no idea if there is anything out there. Only an expectation of a better life keeps them moving.

On the night the novel opens, everyone in Ferrytown died. It was a natural catastrophe. A rock fall into the lake stirred up the sediments and the layer of deadly trapped gas which released from containment flowed through the streets. Only Margaret, an inhabitant of the Pesthouse, escaped because she was on the other side on a hilltop. With no medicines, the population was deathly afraid of the flux. When she fell ill, she was taken to the Pesthouse to die or survive on her own.

Travelling east in search of a better life are Franklin and his brother, Jackson. When Franklin twists his knee, Jackson goes on ahead. Franklin seeks shelter from the weather in the Pesthouse. Marooned together, Franklin and Margaret have to wait until she shows no sign of dying from the flux and his knee allows him to walk without pain. When they do venture into the town, all they find is death. With nothing to remain for, the two of them go east. On their way, they fall in with a number of strange societies, before they reach the coast.

Like all Crace's work, this is a beautifully crafted book. It is a 'Pilgrims' Progress' for the modern age with almost every event being an allegory of some kind. It is also a story of hope and love. Crace has been short-listed for the Man-Booker prize in the past and although this hasn't quite the depth of his novel 'Quarantine' this is still a fine book.

Pauline Morgan

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This book has 34 votes in the sci-fi charts

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