I found the Pesthouse to be an unexpectedly great read. I had read one other book by Jim Crace, which is why I picked it up, but I wasn't sure I would like it, particularly at the beginning when it is quite hard to get your head around the world being described. However I was soon enthralled by the world Crace creates.
The book is set in some indefinable time in the future in America. Something has happened, long ago, which destroyed the modern way of life, cities, and industry. So while the book is set in the future, it actually feels like it is in the distant past. What happened to change the face of the country so much, and send people back to simple lives of farming and trading, is never actually explained. It is almost as if it was so far in the past that the people don't completely know. A few relics of this time survive, such as items with writing on, which people can no longer read. This is the background to a story which is so utterly convincing, even though it takes place in a time which is unrecognisable.
The book begins with two brothers trying to go east across America. Times have become very hard on the farm they are from, and like many other people in this new America, they are desperately trying to make their way to the coast, to where there are boats taking people across the ocean. Everyone believes that what is across the ocean promises a better life--an interesting reversal of what happened when America was created by people coming to find a better life than the one they knew in Europe.
When one, Franklin, is injured, his brother Jackson leaves him to rest his injury while he does to find food and other items to help them on their way in nearby Ferrytown. This is a town which has taken advantage of their position on the river, and multitudes of people going east who need to cross it. They charge people to cross and lodge people who have come to make the crossing.
The other main character, Margaret, is from Ferrytown but has come down with the flux--a type of plague which means that people must be banished from their community after being shorn. She is taken up to the pesthouse, where the people of Ferrytown leave their plague victims to die in seclusion.
Franklin is hiding in the woods nearby, and eventually goes into the pesthouse to find warmth. While people rarely recover from the flux, Margaret does under Franklin's care. After waiting some time for Jackson's return, they go down into Ferrytown to discover that everyone there has died. Margaret wrongly suspects the plague, and never discovers what truly killed her entire town.
After finding everyone in the town dead, and assuming that Jackson has died as well, the two decide to journey the rest of the way to the coast together, where they will find one of the ships and leave America. Their journey is difficult, and not at all straightforward--in this new America, there are no shops and restaurants, and they must forage for food and hide from dangerous bandits that roam the east to rob and kidnap people on their way to the ocean.
I found the sheer imagination necessary to create this world amazing, and also enjoyed the way not everything was explained perfectly. The new America is completely convincing in the way they were told. Many events were surprising, and the characters, while living in an unrecognisable world, are identifiable. Their hope of a better future, their fears and uncertainty of the unknown, make them hugely realistic. The relationship between the two main characters is lovely and interesting, and even the end left me wondering what would happen to them next.