“The Pesthouse” by Jim Crace

Poor Jim Crace. Almost every review I’ve read of this book compares it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and I’m going to do the same.

I can’t help it. They’re both novels set in post-apocalyptic America with two people struggling to get to the coast, and they both came out at about the same time too. And to me, The Road was better. It was just a brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read in years.

The Pesthouse was good, but suffers from the comparison. Whereas The Road is set within living memory of the mysterious disaster that destroyed civilisation, The Pesthouse is set long after. The cities and highways of our present world have mostly disappeared, and the few remaining ruins are complete mysteries to the future inhabitants. They look at the rusty hulks of sunken ships, for example, and think how stupid their ancestors must have been to try to sail something so heavy, which obviously sank before it left the shore.

It’s a story of return – the futuristic America is reminiscent of the America of the past, and everyone is now migrating east towards the hope of sailing to foreign lands, a reversal of the great westward migration of the 19th century. It’s also a love story, as Franklin and Margaret travel together, surviving separation and all kinds of travails to keep pushing east. With their families killed and with violence and depravity all around them, their love is about all they have to cling onto.

Perhaps the reason I didn’t love it as much as The Road was about the language. Cormac McCarthy used a beautifully spare style, and I found it really mesmerising. It was understated, allowing the horror of the situation to speak for itself. Here there is more description, more emotion in the language, and it leaves less to the imagination.

Also the relationship between the boy and his father in The Road was touching and believable, whereas the relationship between Franklin and Margaret here feels a little predictable – you know as soon as they meet that they’re going to fall in love, and that even if they get separated in the vast expanse of America with no way to contact each other, they’ll miraculously find each other again.

I’m making it sound as if I didn’t like the book. That’s not true. I liked it well enough, but it just didn’t blow me away as The Road did (there, I mentioned it again!). I don’t regret reading it, but I wouldn’t strongly recommend it to others.

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