Jim Crace is an orderly, methodical writer (his friend Will Self said: “I wouldn’t dream of saying that Jim’s study demonstrates anal retention, but his marker pens are colour-coded and the distance between his keyboard and chair is painstakingly measured out”), so it’s a surprise that the wait for his new novel, The Pesthouse, doubled the usual metronomic two-year gap between his books. It had better be good.
In fact, it had better be better than Cormac McCarthy’s recently lauded The Road, because superficially the two have a lot in common. Both are set in a post-apocalyptic America, with straggling survivors battling against the collapse of civilisation and doing their best to evade marauding bandits. Like McCarthy’s unnamed man and boy, the characters in The Pesthouse are heading for the coast, where they hope for… what? “We go. We carry on. That’s what we have to do.”
But where McCarthy produced an immersive, devastating fable, Crace has set his sights wider: and lighter. There are some threats in his story, but few real moments of terror, and his world is more colourful, because his language is too. Anyone who has read Crace before will know what to expect: a rhythmic and mythic prose, full of off-kilter but just-so detail. Dawn is “at the very moment that the owl became the cock;” seagulls are “stocky, busy, labouring, their bony wings weighted at the tips with black;” the ocean is “one great weeping eye. On clear days, we can see the curve of it.”
One difficulty with this rich style is that often the drama, emotion or other engine of the story can be blocked out by it. You are so conscious of the beauty of the words that they stay on the surface of your mind without always sinking in. And sure enough, Crace’s tale of Franklin, big and shy (and a bit of a muddler, like his earlier ‘heroes’ Aymer Smith and Felix Dern), and Margaret, left by her family as a victim of plague (or “the flux”), to begin with lacks weight, and for the first half or so the book meanders along with going anywhere much. The feel is not particularly American, and more like a straightforward medieval setting than a future dystopia, or the sort of parallel world Crace has conjured before in Arcadia or Six (which, like The Pesthouse, showed us how well he writes about cities). Occasionally though, the glimpses of an industrial past do cut through and when they do, they work remarkably well:
Colossal devastated wheels and iron machines, too large for human hands, stood at the perimeter of the semicircle, as if they had been dumped by long-retreated glaciers and had no purpose now other than to age. Hardly anything grew amid the waste. The earth was poisoned, probably. Twisted rods of steel protruded from the masonry. Discarded shafts and metal planks, too heavy to pull aside even, blocked their paths.
And it’s around the halfway point that the story really begins to gather itself. Franklin and Margaret face separation, rape, death, and encounter a ripely painted series of characters. Allegories rise up reminding us not only of America’s recent past but our own: immigration, prejudice, slavery, the scattering forms of family life. Crace even stops to have fun with some (literally) ineffectual religious cult members. By the time we reach the coast, he has fashioned most of all a remarkable love story out of the unlikeliest elements. And by the end it is moving and elegiac, altogether a warming and compassionate thing, and easily Crace’s best book since Being Dead or even Quarantine.