A post-apocalyptic fable with unexpected overtones of optimism and patriotism, the latest novel from innovative English writer Jim Crace comes across a bit like Road Warrior meets Grapes of Wrath. Only prettier. The Pesthouse is set in a future America remote enough that technology has faded into history and become superfluous. As a result, the story has a sense of timelessness it could just as easily be set hundreds of years ago, rather than in an era in which coins, books and the decomposing husks of giant metal machines amaze and baffle those who encounter them even as they're treasured as artifacts.
The story follows two young people, the awkward and gangly but good-hearted Jackson and the fiery-haired innocent Margaret, on a journey toward the coast where, they believe, ships will take them away from their own benighted land and into a more promising future. The title of the book refers to the wilderness hut where Jackson and Margaret meet. She's been stashed away there for exhibiting the flu-like symptoms of the flux, a plague that periodically decimates the population of her village. He seeks shelter there one night while waiting for his injured knee to heal so he can rejoin his brother on their journey. Neither trajectory goes as expected; Margaret recovers, and Jackson winds up traveling with her instead of his brother. By the end of the story, both protagonists have realized that good sense demands they leave behind what Crace calls the taints and perils of America but their hearts, and circumstances, dictate otherwise.
At one point, stranded at a port with several other emigrants and unable to leave as planned, someone comments that they're all Americans now, and it's said with the resigned acceptance of a curse. But ultimately, Jackson and Margaret don't see it that way. Despite the criticisms inherent in a story set in an America that has driven itself to ruin, The Pesthouse ends up as a strangely patriotic novel particularly if patriotism can be defined as loving a land and the idea of a country even when that idea clashes with reality.
Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.