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Jim Crace: Pesthouse

This novel is set in a post-apocalyptic United States. Much of the populace has been killed by something called the Grand Contagion. For the survivors, life is very hard. Almost the entire industrial landscape has disappeared, with only the rotting ruins of factories and so on visible. Those people that are left live in small towns or even on isolated farms. There is hunger and lawlessness. Those that can, make the trek East to get a ship to Europe where things are said to be much better. This is, of course, an ironical reversal of the immigration to the United States in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. One problem that still remains is a disease known as the flux, a plague-like disease. Victims are shaved completely and are therefore readily recognised and avoided.

The story starts in Ferrytown. The small town has made money, as everyone on the way East to the ships has to cross here by ferry – there is, apparently, no other way, and pay a toll to do so. The novel starts with the town being completely destroyed when a landslide into the lake releases a large amount of poisonous gas, killing all the inhabitants. We then jump back a few days to meet our protagonists. Margaret lived with her family in Ferrytown. She became ill and, as her father had died of it some years back, the family assumed it was the flux. She is shaved completely – even the hair in her nostrils – and taken to the pesthouse, a remote hut well outside the town, where she will stay till she recovers or dies. Meanwhile, Franklin and Jackson Lopez have arrived outside the town. Franklin, the younger, has injured his knee and finds it difficult to walk, so he is left outside the town while Jackson goes into the town to see if he can trade his coat for food and a ferry passage, which he manages to do. Unfortunately, he spends the night in the town and dies with the others. The landslide is caused by a heavy rainfall so, that night, Franklin is soaked and seeks further shelter. He finds the pesthouse, where he joins Margaret. Both are unaware of what has happened in Ferrytown. They stay in the pesthouse for a while, while Franklin looks after Margaret. When they eventually do go into the town, they find the disaster. Franklin takes a few things for their onward journey – now the only option – and inadvertently starts a fire. Margaret knows of a secret bridge so that they do not have to use the ferry, now adrift and unreachable, and they set off.

The rest of the book describes their adventures in the post-apocalyptic United States. It is not pretty. There are bands of roaming thugs who steal from travellers and enslave them and the pair come across these bands. There are other travellers like them, eager to flee to Europe. There are odd groups, particularly the Finger Baptists, whose senior members did not use their hands or arms as it was these limbs that caused the trouble they now face. (They are fed and washed by acolytes.) They also ban all metal. Margaret and Franklin have a variety of adventures, being separated and then rejoined and facing cruelty and brutality as well as hunger and fear. It is certainly not a bad book as far as post-apocalyptic novels go though not one that is particularly original, apart from the little irony of the reverse immigration. Presumably, like me, Crace is of the view that when the apocalypse occurs, i.e. when Western countries start to fall, in part as resources dwindle, it will be the US that is the first to go and least able to recover but that is not an original point of view either.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Picador