There was a review of The Pesthouse in The Globe and Mail a couple weeks back, but seeing as I'd only just started reading the novel, I barely skimmed the review. Looking to it now, I see that it's available to subscribers only (which I am not one), so I can't quote from it or say anything, really, other than that I believe it was fairly positive.
Then there's the New York Times.
Francine Prose didn't much care for it:
You can't help wanting more from art, and from Jim Crace. You can't help wanting something new, something beyond an inspired melding of science fiction and the horrors we ourselves dream up in the dead of night. It's disorienting and a little dispiriting — like some sort of odd déjà vu — to read about the hell of the future and feel that we've been there before.
Prose was stalled each time characters acted counterintuitively; I didn't find them to act so at all. They're among the most rational, commonsensical, most human (and most humanly flawed), most real creatures I've ever met in a postapocalyptic setting.
Richard Eder sees it in a much more positive light:
[Crace] brings his large, distant abstractions — prehistory, a dystopic future, religion, death — up close, segmenting them into tangible and particular fictional parcels. His universal themes are paced out in wry individual footsteps.
It is a story of redemption. With that I must agree. The redemption of 2 people in a big, ugly world.
It is grim, but not desperately so. It has political and ecological concerns. There are problems of health and of technology. It has elements that are mystical. But no one mood or angle is prevalent. And in this way, perhaps, it is a balanced extrapolation of our now — a fairly reasonable, believable depiction of the not-too-distant future.
The Pesthouse reminds me most of Doris Lessing's Mara and Dann (though Lessing's book spans a much greater time period): a migration toward a promised land, the vigour of the survival instinct in the face of illness and other means of imminent death, encounters with communities who've developed their own survival strategies, the splitting up (and later reunion) of the travel party, the disillusion of that promised land. (On the whole, I prefer Lessing's book — it has a more fabular quality, its characters relying on storytelling for the preservation of knowledge (and wisdom); but then it concerns itself with the survival of something more than the lives of main characters.)
I think postapocalyptic books are a reflection of the fears and mood of the times they are written in. There's no mistaking those that derive from the atom bomb, the arms race, the Cold War. Some books are fueled by particular political movements; some by specific medical or other scientific advancements; recent dystopias are founded in ecological crises.
There is no evidence regarding the nature of Crace's apocalypse. The people of America in Crace's future believe they will find a better life elsewhere, that the rest of the world goes on as always, civilized. Whether this is so, we never know.
Jim Crace on The Pesthouse (in a humorous essay regarding Useless America):
It's set in America's medieval future and is an inquiry into my — and the world's — love-hate relationship with the United States.
America itself is a pesthouse.
The prologue is available on the Jim Crace website:
This used to be America, this river crossing in the ten-month stretch of land, this sea-to-sea. It used to be the safest place on earth.
Read Chapter 1 on the publisher's website.