Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Gray House, by Mariam Petrosyan

A long, complicated Russian novel about disabled children at a strange school that's neither magical nor mundane.

The Gray House

Amazon Crossing, 2009, 732 pages

The Gray House is an astounding tale of how what others understand as liabilities can be leveraged into strengths.

Bound to wheelchairs and dependent on prosthetic limbs, the physically disabled students living in the House are overlooked by the Outsides. Not that it matters to anyone living in the House, a hulking old structure that its residents know is alive. From the corridors and crawl spaces to the classrooms and dorms, the House is full of tribes, tinctures, scared teachers, and laws - all seen and understood through a prismatic array of teenagers' eyes.

But student deaths and mounting pressure from the Outsides put the time-defying order of the House in danger. As the tribe leaders struggle to maintain power, they defer to the awesome power of the House, attempting to make it through days and nights that pass in ways that clocks and watches cannot record.

The Gray House is a strange book. It was a bestseller in Russia before it was translated. In Russian, the title is more like "The House, in Which..."

The Gray House is a big old house where disabled children are sent to live. They aren't all orphans, but those who have parents almost never mention them, and only towards the end do a few parents show up and become relevant.

The House is divided into "houses" or "packs," largely self-selecting but also ordered by some arcane process and sometimes by people choosing to move. Yes, yes, cue the Hogwarts references here, but really, this is the most un-Hogwarts-like book about children going to a bizarre maybe-magical school you can imagine.

The First through the Sixth houses are each known by some other name — e.g., the Hounds, the Rats, or the aloof, isolated, rules-abiding Pheasants of the First. Within these houses are other factions. Kids form their own little bands. Some are categorized by their disabilities, but they don't really align themselves according to shared disabilities. There are the wheelers and the blind and those missing limbs, and the developmentally disabled... and despite a setting ripe for cringey or cruel depictions, in fact it's one of the most humane representations of disabled people I've read. Because these kids, with all their various disabilities, are first and foremost kids. Their kindnesses and cruelties are completely orthogonal to their disabilities, which they simply take for granted and are only mentioned in passing. The reader will completely forget that Smoker is in a wheelchair or Sphinx has prosthetic arms until it is incidentally mentioned again. (Blind, well, his disability is rather obvious, and yet his blindness actually seems irrelevant most of the time.)

Very few characters are identified by their real names. Instead they are identified by their "nicks." Blind, Smoker, Sphinx, Grasshopper, Tubby, Humpback, Wolf, Spider, and so on. Some of their nicks change over the course of the story, and the story is non-linear, so it can be confusing to realize suddenly that one character is actually the same character from an earlier chapter under another name. And there are a huge number of names, with almost a dozen viewpoint characters and many more secondary ones.

There are girls in the Gray House too (likewise identified by nicks - Ginger, Mermaid, etc.), but they don't really show up until the second half.

The teachers make up a third group of characters. They are also absurd, over the top, sometimes humane, sometimes cowardly or corrupt, all fighting their own factional battles, and all afraid of the House and ultimately, the students.

The House is its own entity. Is it alive? Is it steering events? Is it sinister or protective? There are time skips and kids sometimes cross over into other realms. It's very Haruki Murakami by way of Gogol, but without all the obsession with tits and dicks. There are implied sexual relations with some of the female characters, and some of them are quite brazen, and yet it never seems creepy like when Murakami writes that kind of thing.... it's just adolescents doing stupid shit.

There's an ending in which we see the culmination of a power struggle, an effort to save the students from a graduation day massacre, and an epilogue in which some of them are living their adult lives elsewhere, and some are back in the House. And a surrealist vibe to the whole thing — some of the characters are cursed or blessed with the ability to keep looping back in time.

It's weird and strange and much of it didn't really make a lot of sense to me at first read. It may be one of the few books I have to revisit, despite its ponderous length.

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Tags: books, fantasy, reviews

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