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The Pesthouse    by Jim Crace order for
by Jim Crace
Order:  USA  Can
Nan A. Talese, 2007 (2007)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

There's a very satisfying symmetry to Jim Crace's lyrical, post-apocalyptic novel, The Pesthouse. It's set in a future America, long ravaged by disease that has destroyed civilization and left the survivors hungry for the better world that is believed to still exist across the ocean in Europe. A steady stream of refugees journey to the Eastern coast.

The story opens, 'Everybody died at night', as disaster suddenly strikes Ferrytown, a greedy community that has long lived off the pickings of these travelers' yearnings for a better life. Lamed by an inflamed knee, Franklin Lopez didn't make it to Ferrytown, but rested above on Butter Hill while his brother continued without him. Driven to seek shelter from the relentless rain, he discovers a boulder hut nearby, the Pesthouse, inhabited by red-headed (now shorn-headed) Margaret, whose family had shaved all the hair off her body and left her there to recover on her own or die, as was tradition after she contracted the flux.

Attracted to Margaret, Franklin helps her and they discover the disaster that has struck the community below together. They take solace in each other's company and journey on, now seeking the coast together. But this is a lawless world, full of predators, and they are separated. Franklin is taken by slavers, while Margaret takes on responsibility for an infant. They survive terrible ordeals, Margaret in particular showing wit, resourcefulness and courage. During winter, she finds refuge with a rather odd but colorful religious group, the Finger Baptists, who blame their world's ills on technology, and believe that 'Metal has brought death into the world. Rust and fire are God's reply.' They help the needy, but on their own terms.

Of course, though they've lost everything else, Franklin and Margaret reunite and seek to emigrate together. But this world is a harsh one, where fear breeds selfishness and lack of compassion in people who would be decent in other circumstances, while many others prey on the weak and benefit from their misfortunes. In an interview, Jim Crace tells us that 'My novels go into the darkest corners of existence to hear their brightest notes' and that comment sums up The Pesthouse very well. I enjoyed the novel's role reversal of sending the poor and dispossessed to Europe from America, but what struck me most was its depiction of individuals' ability to hope and care for one another in the direst circumstances.

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