I stumbled upon this while researching magical realism, and before I knew it I’d read all thousand pages.
This is one of the stranger books I’ve ever read. It’s definitely not fair to call it Fringey – 99.99% of the book takes place inside one home, and if the characters leave their home they are immediately stricken with a mysterious plague until they return.
THE GRAY HOUSE was originally written in Russian by Armenia author Mariam Petrosyan. I suspect she might be a little insane in a wonderful way.
The best way to enjoy this book is to go into it entirely unprepared. If you’re feeling adventurous and you have two weeks of reading time to kill, stop reading my blog and go read THE GRAY HOUSE before you obtain any of those pesky expectations.
Reading a thousand pages is a daunting task, though, so I’ll review the book for those who like to know what they’re getting into. No ending spoilers, of course.
One of those books where your imagination must fill in expository gaps, THE GRAY HOUSE ostensibly involves a group of students in a boarding school for the disabled. They’ve formed their own chaotic society, and the adults never enforce any rules. Think LORD OF THE FLIES. The Laws the teens follow are idiosyncratic and follow a lot of child-logic. So far, everything is perfectly in accordance with the laws of physics, if rather far removed from psychological and sociological probability.
Soon, though, you start seeing subtle mention of supernatural abilities among the students. Remember, it’s a home for the disabled, so the protagonists are in wheelchairs or use prosthetic arms or lack vision or the capacity for speech. They throw around the word “Jumper” and you experience interludes set in a place enigmatically called “The Forest,” despite the fact that none of the students ever leave the House.
As the depth of your experience progresses, you remain unsure if the ‘magical’ part of ‘magical realism’ is ‘real.’
While Petrosyan shares with us the details of the world of the House, you never know if the kids are engaged in imaginative worldbuilding of their own, or if the House has supernatural abilities of its own. You can only theorize if the drastic changes effected upon the House denizens are a result of psychology or of magical forces. You’re only getting tiny glimpses, often disguised as fairy tales and anecdotes and unreliable narrators, of the magic.
While the author spares no detail of ‘mundane’ life in the House – we know volumes of information on the fifty-odd male seniors and their homemade society – she gives us only sparse tidbits about the real mystery. This leads to unbearable tension like I’ve never before experienced as a reader. You don’t know how they’re going to solve their problems. You don’t know what their problems are. You don’t even know if it’s all real.
You start forming theories, though you have little to go on. You start analyzing possible metaphors, and you’ll never know if you’re right. You read on, in mortal fear of a vague (but somehow disturbing) threat coming to pass.
You get to the end and you see how all the nothing comes together and made something magical, impactful, and chilling.
This book has a very dark feel to it. You know the House is not safe, yes, but you also come to picture everything in dim lighting and foreboding gray, despite the colorful personalities and backgrounds of the House’s inhabitants. I love that. I love the implausibility and the way my imagination had to provide every detail. I love the way I know these characters so well now, despite how high the character count is.
You’ll spend some time not confused, but a little lost. It’s an important distinction when it comes to reader enjoyment. Lost – that’s a good thing.