Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



The Pesthouse by Jim Crace








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Jim Crace sets his new novel, The Pesthouse, sometime in the distant future in America. For unknown reasons, life seems to have more characteristics of medieval times that the era of technological achievement. Refugees are heading East to take ships across the ocean away from America for a better life elsewhere. The two protagonists, Franklin and Margaret, try to join the journey East, but end up heading West instead, trying to survive. The title refers to the house where he found her in isolation for disease. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 3, pp. 25-29:

Franklin had not expected so much rain. Anyone could tell from how brittle the landscape was that, in these parts at least, it had scarcely rained all season, and what clouds there’d been that day had been horizon clouds, passersby, or overtakers, actually, for they were heading eastward, too—but hardly any time had gone before the last light of the day threw out its washing water, splashing it as heavily as grit on the brittle undergrowth and setting free its long-stored smells, part hope and part decay. The rain was unforgiving in its weight. It meant to stay and do some damage and some good in equal parts. It meant to be noticed. It meant to run downhill until it found a river and then downstream until it found a sea. “If you’re looking for the sailing boats, just follow the fallen rain” was the universal advice for inexperienced travelers.

Franklin couldn’t sleep through this. He couldn’t even sit out such a downpour. He’d have to find some better shelter. He shook out the leaves from his bedding, wrapped the two already damp tarps around himself, and limped as best he could onto a rocky knoll from which he could peer into the darkness and through the rain from a greater height. He hadn’t noticed any caves or overhanging cliffs or any forest thick and broad-leafed enough to offer hope of staying dry for very long. This was the kind of rain that wouldn’t rest until its job was done.

Now Franklin considered the little boulder hut on the fringe of the clearing, with its gray scarf of smoke. It was the sort of place where inexperienced or incautious robbers might make their den, well positioned for picking off stragglers even though anyone with any sense would give it a wide berth. But Franklin would take the risk—despite Jackson’s warnings, but also because of his brother’s stinging accusation earlier that day that “only the crazy make it to the coast”—and see if he could bargain any shelter there. He’d lost his bearings in the storm and in the darkness, though, and couldn’t quite remember where he’d seen the hut. On the forest edge, for sure, but where exactly, how far off? What residue of light remained was not enough to spot its chimney. He sniffed for wood smoke but sniffed up only rain. He’d have to stumble in the dark and trust to luck, and still take good care not to wake any hostile residents, though the chances were it was just a woodsman’s cabin or some hermitage, a no-choice place to rest his knee and stay dry for the night.

No matter where he stumbled, he could not see the outline of a roof, as he had hoped, or any light, but he was old enough to know where anyone would build a hut if there was free choice. Not entirely under trees, for a start, and not in earthy shallows where bogs might form. But half in, half out. Not too exposed to wind or passersby. But looking south and on flat ground, preferably face on to a clearing.

It was her coughing that led him to her, finally—the hacking, tre­ble cough of foxes, but hardly wild enough for foxes. A woman’s cough. So now Franklin knew the place, and where it stood in rela­tion to the far too open spot where he had rolled his cocoon. He took his bearings from the coughing, waiting for it to break out, then sub­side, and then break out again, and from the heavy outlines of the woodlands and the hillside. He shuffled through the soaking grasses, taking care not to snap any sticks, listening for beasts below the clat­ter of the storm, until he could hear the telltale percussion of the rain striking something harder and less giving than the natural world, something flat and man-made. And now indeed he could hear and see the black roofline of a hut and a chimney stack. Then, between the timbers of its door—but for a moment only—he caught the reas­suring and alarming flicker of a candle flame, just lit from the grate. He knew exactly what that meant: whoever was inside had heard him creeping up. They had been warned and would be ready.

Franklin hung his back sack on a branch, pulled off his tarps, and took out his knife, its blade still smelling of the meadow onions they had found and eaten raw earlier that day. The lighted candle meant that the occupant (or occupants) was nervous, too. So he grew more confident. Now he made as much noise as he could, trying to sound large and capable. He called out, “Shelter from the rain?” and then when there was silence, “I’m joining you if you’ll allow.” And finally, “No cause for fear, I promise you,” though he was more than a little fearful himself when there were no replies. The boulder hut was big enough to house a gang of men in addition to the coughing woman, all armed, all dangerous. A man with a knife, no matter how tall he was, could not defend himself in the dark against missiles, or long pikes, or several men with cudgels. He tried again: “I’m a friend. Just say that you’ll welcome me out of the storm, or I’ll step away.” A test of hospitality. Some coughing now, as if the cougher had to find a voice from far away, and then, “Come only to the door. Don’t open it.” The woman’s voice. A youngish voice. Already he was blushing.

For a door, the hut had little more than a barricade of rough pine planks. Franklin said, “I’m here.” He peered between the planks and could just make out the dark form of one person, resting on one el­bow in a bed, backlit by a wood fire in a grate. Nothing to be fright­ened of. Nothing physical, at least. Some traveler, perhaps, who just like him was suffering from knees and needed shelter for a while. “I’m going to drown unless I come inside,” he said. She coughed at him. No Stay away, no Come.

Franklin pulled the door aside with his left hand, resting his right hand, with the knife, on the low lintel at his chin height. She held her candle out to get a better look at him, and in its sudden guttering of light they saw each other for the first time. Red Margaret was star­tled first by the size of him, two times the weight and size of her grandpa, she thought, and then by what she took to be a face of hon­esty, not quite a handsome face, not quite a beauty boy, but narrow, healthy, promising, a face to rescue her from fear if only he would dare. Franklin saw the bald, round head of someone very sick and beautiful. A shaven head was unambiguous. It meant the woman and the hut were dangerous. He stepped back and turned his head away to breathe the safer, rain-soaked air. He was no longer visible to her. The door frame reached only his throat. He put the door back into place and reconciled himself to getting very wet and cold that night. “A pesthouse, then,” he said out loud, to show—politely—that he understood and that his curtailed friendliness was sensible. Too late to call his brother back, though calling out for Jackson was Franklin’s first instinct, because if there was disease in the Pesthouse, there could well be disease down there, among the inhabitants of Ferrytown.

Now the woman was coughing once again. Her little hut was full of smoke, he’d noticed. And her lungs, no doubt, were heavy with pestilence, too. Dragging his tarps behind him, he crashed his way back through the clearing and undergrowth into the thickest of the trees, where the canopy would be his shelter. He had been cowardly, he knew. He had been sensible. Only a fool would socialize with death just to stay warm and dry for the night. He found a partly pro­tected spot among the scrub oaks just at the top of Butter Hill, where he could erect a makeshift tent from his stretched tarps and protect himself a little. His decision to stay up in the hills to rest had clearly been a foolish one. Jackson had been right, as usual. A crazier, more reckless man would have faced the risks of pressing on, injury defied, and enjoyed the benefits of a warm bed, surely better for a limping emigrant than sharing a stormy night with bald disease, no matter how eye-catching it might be.

Franklin’s knee had worsened in the rain and during his latest stumbles through the sodden undergrowth. Its throbbing tormented him. It almost ached out loud, the nagging of a roosting dove: Can’t cook, cook, cook. Even when, in the early quarters of the night, the storm had passed and the moon, the stars, and the silver lake had reappeared, he could not sleep. Her face was haunting him, her face in candlelight (that celebrated flatterer) and the shorn scalp. He might have touched himself with her in mind, despite his pain, had not the valley raised its voice above the grumbling of his knee and the has­tened beating of his newly captured heart. The dripping music of the woods was joined by lowland drums. There was the thud and clatter of slipping land, a sound he could not comprehend or recognize—he knew only that it was bad—and then the stony gust, the rumbling, the lesser set of sounds than thunder that agitated the younger horses and the ever-childish mules out in the safety of the tetherings.

On Butter Hill, above the river crossing where west was granted access to the east, Franklin Lopez sat alarmed, entirely unasleep, in his wet tarps, the only living witness when the silver pendant shook and blistered—a pot, a lake, coming to the boil.


Today’s world is full of refugees like Franklin and Margaret, looking for a better life and a refuge from their troubles. Perhaps Crace is asking whether America is that kind of place. The Pesthouse contains fine writing, and leaves readers with the hope that individuals can overcome all odds.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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