Book Review : The Gray House
By Mariam Petrosyan
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. (Courtesy of goodreads.com)
Adult Point of View
As with all Russian novels, I was overwhelmed by the vast breadth of The Gray House. Pin pointing my emotions first include, being mesmerized, sickened, fascinated, questioning and confused. Exhausted. Addicted. Ponderous. Poetry. Intense. Thought provoking. Obtuse.
If anyone says they understand this novel, I wouldn’t believe them. It took the author 18 years to write and with all the symbolism, nuances and themes I don’t believe even she could remember all the details without an extensive chart. In my first read through, I made over 145 notes. In an 800 page book I would usually make around 20 notes, so Petrosyan definitely made a herculean story.
One of my remaining questions after reading the synopsis and the entire book remains, is the House sentient? Are we meant to have a definite answer? Probably not. Black, who still struggles with his identity around Sphinx indicates the House’s draw was more imagination than reality. But, he’s a biased witness.
I’ve seen many reviews comparing The Gray House to other authors, and I agree one cannot help but see Lord of the Flies, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the stream of conscience moments like The Sound and The Fury. Some even say it could be seen as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts – though I would disagree with that one. There is even a reference to 1984 with Big Brother. Even so, The Gray House is a stand alone.
What I wish I’d had while reading was a list of some of the main characters, just to give me some anchors in the maelstrom novel. With any luck this small list will be of help.
Smoker: He has been in the Pheasants, the predictable (accountant type), steady tribe, however, he has been kicked out because he dared to wear red shoes. (Very Ayn Rand where the individual is the important one compared to the collective.) Smoker is the character I feel like I most relate to because he is always asking questions. He is also the innocent character, who is forced into losing his innocence. He hadn’t realized he was being cynical at the time.
Tabaqui the Jackal: He is part court fool, part philosopher and all collector of oddities. Another character advises Smoker to listen to Tabaqui because he tells the truth – and he does, it’s just been rolled in beads, feathers and guano before being presented to the audience. He is probably my second favorite character.
Blind: He is seen as the leader of the House. Even though he is part of fourth, he has another role over all the tribes, though not talked about directly. Blind eats the plaster of the House to have it become a part of him. He is the best argument for the House being sentient. Blind is also able to move between realities. He occupies the forest as well as the House. Blind shows very little emotion. He carries out the Law dispassionately. He changes the Law when it suits him, after his contrived encounter with Gaby. He is the most disappointed when the Leaders don’t conform to following him into a different reality at the end of the year. He is the Peter Pan of the lost boys, he cannot grow up.
Noble: He is seen as handsome, and noble. Like the other children in the home he struggles with many issues, but when he is taken from the House and later returned his personality has changed. Noble moved from a strong character to a passive character. He serves as proof of the affects of being on the Outside, like a morality play for the observers. I thought Noble seemed like a decent person the way he treated Smoker.
Sphinx: At one time he tortured Noble, which is why Noble was so fast at moving without his wheelchair. He was a Jumper between realities. Sphinx is said to have been given a choice that no one else had been given. Smoker resented him for being given a choice. Black tried to emulate Sphinx, and also came to resent him. Sphinx seems the most closely associated with Blind.
Black: He had been under Sphinx in the heirarchy in the fourth. When the Dog tribe lost their leader he changed tribes, to become their new leader. It made it so that he and Sphinx were no longer at each others’ throats. He was seen as a black sheep by Smoker, and so, Smoker felt like he could relate to Black when all the others were acting crazy. Black seems like a realist by the end.
Grasshopper: Though not a main character, he acted as a foil to Blind. He seems to maintain his innocence, because of his youth. He is the only one who liked Wolf, while all the others see Wolf as one of the most depraved.
Ralph or R One: He is the poor councilor who knows more than the other adults. Ralph is also a nickname, one he didn’t like. He wondered how the kids knew he was coming back, when he had barely decided and saw his name written on the walls like a message board. He recognizes the graphite as a source of news in the House. He worries and frets over what may happen based on previous graduations. He genuinely wants to help, but he is blocked – either by the boys or the House.
Mermaid: She is another innocent. Her role could be seen as saving Sphinx. Much like Jane Eyre saving the Byronic hero, Rochester – where the pure female is the only one capable of rescuing and redeeming the flawed, tortured male character.
Big Spoilers Upcoming! Don’t read if you want to be surprised! You have been warned! Imagine this as graphite warning away the uninitiated! I have done my best to give you a chance to stop reading and so here continues my review…
The Gray House doesn’t break down into the same points as an American novel. Even so, it helped me to look at it under this microscope. The first section seems to revolve around Smoker; his innocence and being a fish out of water. The inciting incident is when Smoker is kicked out of the Pheasants. The next catalyst is when Smoker witnesses a murder with the other students. Each student has touched hands, as though they are all in this action – no one is innocent any longer. The second section, shows the decline of the tribes – each is unique and rife with their own problems (accept for the Pheasants, the most “normal” of any of the students). As an example, one tribe is always trying to cut themselves with razors, some are more militant, others have bizarre rules to follow. A frenzy towards to the end of this section has two members of a tribe trying to kill Red. He is inadvertently saved, while the other two run. The runners both seem to be punished, one is gone to the Outside – the same as death, and the other ends up in the basement barely subsisting on charity. Next, Blind has been sequestered with Gaby – purple lipstick marks seem to glow on his skin. After this encounter, Blind changes the rules and the girls are allowed to visit. No longer are the boys isolated, but with this comes a new onslaught of problems. Jealousy. Love affairs. Lack of privacy. Not only is the House full of alcohol and drugs, now sex is added to the mix. (The sordid details are not explained, just the bare bones of the facts – which is disturbing enough among this house of lunatic children. It seems like many of the characters are about 14 or 15, but the ages vary.) The final section of the book obsesses over graduation. How in the past there were savage deaths and mayhem. Ralph is particularly concerned since their is a two faction House at the moment. The roller coaster ride to the end had me worried about death. Rather than an outright mass murder, some of the students disappear on a bus, others go into a coma by choice while a few disappear – presumably into the forest. Later we hear that Elk, another councilor died, but without an explanation except it sounded like an accident. Finally, the novel jumps forward and we peak into the adult lives of the few of the characters. Smoker is a painter – the bear Ginger held continues to show up in his art. Red is at a commune, and a father. Sphinx is a child psychologist. Black remains the realist. The last scenes are of Stinker throwing confetti, a new twin boy with his facilities awakened and realizing he is so happy (a product of being in the House) and finally, of a boy walking to the school ready to enter the doors. Another offering to the House.
End of spoilers!
End of spoilers!
A couple of quotes, to give you the flavor of the writing, if not the context:
“The snails clung to the tops of the weeds and knocked against each other, sounding like hollow walnuts.” (Kindle location 2239)
“When a person turns into a patient he relinquishes his identity. The individuality sloughs off, and the only thing that’s left is an animal shell over a compound of fear, hope, pain and sleep. There is no trace of humanity in there. The human floats somewhere outside of the boundaries of the patient, waiting patiently for the possibility of a resurrection. And there is nothing worse for a spirit than to be reduced to a mere body.” (Kindle location 3356)
“Wolf had been one of those who’d changed reality around them. One of the strongest in that regard. A potential challenger.” (Kindle location 4997)
“The game was boring if he regarded it as a task, and exciting if he just played it. It made his eyes hurt and filled his dreams with jittery flashes.” (Kindle location 5557)
“The House demands a reverent attitude. A sense of mystery. Respect and awe. It can accept you or not, shower you with gifts or rob you of everything you have, immerse you in a fairy tale or a nightmare. Kill you, make you old, give you wings…It’s a powerful and fickle deity, and if there’s one thing it can’t stand, it’s being reduced to mere words. For that it exacts payment.” (Kindle location 9531)
“Because whoever’s telling the story creates the story. No single story can describe reality exactly the way it was.” (Kindle location 9826)
“Life does not go in a straight line. It is like circles on the surface of the water. Every circle, every loop is composed of the same stories, with very few changes, but no one notices that. No one recognizes those stories. It is customary to think that the time in which you find yourself is brand new, freshly made and freshly painted. But the world only ever draws repeated patterns. And there aren’t than many of them.” (Kindle location 12101)
“You should always smell of things that surround you, that’s one of the Forest survival tricks. Becoming a part of it reduces the danger. It’s a bit like copying the inflection.” (Kindle location 12428)
Whew! And that’s just a short review! As you can see, this book is not for the faint of heart. One needs to be willing to run the course, with obstacles and serpentine storytelling. I enjoyed it, but frankly I would have cut 200 pages. I know if you are one of the cult fans, you’ll think I’m wrong and wish she had added another 500 pages. If you have read this interesting book, please leave a message. I’m anxious to hear what other people think!
4 out of 5 stars
I just finished reading The Hawkman , A Fairy Tale of the Great War by Jane Rosenberg LaForge. Even though the two books are nothing alike, if you like the one I think you would like the other because both are surreal and have a quality of writing rare in today’s market.
As previously said, even though there is nothing quite like The Gray House, here is a list of some other books to give a try that each have surreal elements:
Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
Trick of the Eye by Dennis Haseley
The Girl In Between by Laekan Zea Kemp
If you’re a fan of The Gray House, send me a message of other books you have liked!