The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan, Translated by Yuri Machkasov

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“These things are nobody’s things,“ Tabaqui insists. “They don’t have an owner. But there must have been a purpose to them lying forgotten and lost in some corner all this time, right? And then being found suddenly? They might contain some sort of magic. The answers to all our questions are right around us, all we have to do is find them. And then the seeker becomes the hunter.”

I genuinely, unabashedly adored this book. This is absolutely my sort of novel. I loved the characters, I loved the prose, I loved the structure, and I loved the surreal sense of mysticism and deep unease that permeated the whole of the House. I loved the whimsy, I loved the quirkiness, and I loved the constant uncertainty. I loved it so much that my blog title is a reference to this book, even.

In terms of genre, this is an excellent example of weird, surreal, slice of life fantasy with a dose of magical realism. The book reminded me of nothing so much as City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer; a great deal is interconnected and requires that the reader be actively involved in pulling out the different threads of the story. The reading experience nearly evokes Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels in the pictures and images it creates.

The House is a liminal space between reality and a surreal secondary world which may or may not truly exist. It’s unclear whether the House is truly an entity, whether it’s simply a conduit for something entirely different, or if, perhaps, those who live in it have merely dreamed it all up. Its denizens are a host of disabled children who are ostensibly there to learn and be provided personalized medical care. They form whimsical tribes, vie for precedence, and have personalities larger than life. It’s up to the reader to determine what is true and what is false as Graduation approaches, and with it violence, death, and a final crossing-over. For all that it’s often dealing with serious and sad issues, this is a surprisingly fun and even cheerful read.

The plot is a meandering path with many smaller offshoots; it’s like wandering through a hedge maze and attempting to figure out what the overall shape looks like from down within the leaves. There are moments of intense violence, when you step around a corner and abruptly find that the fountains run not with water, but with blood. That said, I don’t want to misconstrue the overall tone – which is quirky and fun. This is a book about colorful, engaging cast members. 

Perhaps my favorite character, Tabaqui the Jackal is a wheeler belonging to the Fourth.  Petrosyan does a great job in presenting the characters’ disabilities to the reader in a fashion that is realistic and without a trace of pity. The characters are simply human. Their disabilities are not erased, nor do they define them. Tabaqui, in particular, lets his shine. His trusty wheelchair, affectionately nicknamed Mustang, takes him anywhere he could wish to go. He collects  buttons, items with no owner, talismans, hexes, and brings gifts of time and egret feathers to those who are worth. Quite frankly, this is not a book about disability at all – rather, it’s just accepted that some people do things differently.

Characters are known only by their nicknames, granted to them on their first day in the House. We have Mermaid, Humpback, Catwoman. Vulture, Siamese, Magician. Red, Solomon, Long Gaby. Even the teachers and counselors aren’t exempt from this second House name. Each of the narrators is highly unreliable, albeit truthful in their own ways, and I’m planning on a reread to trace some of the nuances and allusions I’m certain I missed in this first go around. 

Some are purported to have the ability to cross over into a second universe, parallel to that of the House: Jumpers and Striders. For most of the book, it’s an open question as to what this quite entails and to where these people are Jumping to. We see Smoker transform into a cat, Alexander a broken and tattered angel, and visit a run-down cafe for those who haven’t yet made it to the Forest or who have forgotten themselves during their Jump.

Petrosyan describes The Gray House being “not merely a book, but a world she knew and could visit,” which definitely comes across in her writing. I feel like I’ve only taken a peek through a small crack into the House. The ending is not what I had anticipated, but it was probably the best possible ending for this book. It left me already looking forward to the next time I read through this book, but also needing some time to come down from the experience. This book is one to experience rather than one to read.

What an utterly delightful ride. 

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External Links: r/Fantasy Goodreads Book of the Month Read Along

Goodreads | Bookshop.org

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About the Author

Mariam Petrosyan was born in 1969 in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. After finishing an art college she became a cartoonist at the Studio of Armenfilm. Later she moved to Moscow to work at Soyuzmultfilm, but came back to Yerevan in 1995 and returned to Armenfilm. She worked there until 2007.

Her first novel, The Gray House (Russian: «Дом, в котором…», literally: The House, In Which…), tells of a boarding school for disabled children and was published in Russian in 2009, becoming a bestseller. It was nominated for the Russian Booker Prize in 2010 and received several awards and nominations, among them the 2009 Russian Prize for the best book in Russian by an author living abroad.

The book has been translated into Italian (La casa del tempo sospeso, 2011), Hungarian (Abban a házban, 2012), Polish (Dom, w którym…, 2013), Spanish (La casa de los otros, 2015), French (La Maison dans laquelle, 2016), Czech (Dům, ve kterém, 2016), and Macedonian (Домот во кој…, 2016) languages.

About the Translator

Born in Moscow, Yuri Machkasov studied for a career as a theoretical physicist before moving to the United States in 1991. He lives in the Boston area and works as a software developer.
Yuri has translated books into Russian for Livebook Publishing, among them the Carnegie Medal winner Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. His first novel-length translation from Russian, “The Gray House” by Mariam Petrosyan, was more than two years in the making and came out in 2017 from Amazon Crossing. He has also translated modern Russian poetry, including the work of the Moscow poet Vera Polozkova.

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