Goodhouse by Peyton Marshall
At the end of the twenty-first century—in a transformed America—the families of convicted felons are tested for a set of genetic markers. Boys who test positive become compulsory wards of the state—removed from their homes and raised on Goodhouse campuses, where they learn to reform their darkest thoughts and impulses. Goodhouse is a feral place—part prison, part boarding school—and now a radical religious group, the Holy Redeemer’s Church of Purity, has begun to target these schools for attack, with purifying fire.
We see all this through the eyes of James, a transfer student who watched the radicals set fire to his old Goodhouse and everyone he’d ever known. In addition to entering a new school with new rules, James now has to contend with Bethany, a wild tech genius with a heart defect who wants to save him, and her father, the sinister director of medical studies. Soon, however, James realizes that the biggest threat might already be there, inside the fortified walls of Goodhouse. Partly based on the true story of the nineteenth-century Preston School of Industry and the boys who lived and died in its halls, Goodhouse explores questions of identity and free will—and what it means to test the limits of human endurance.
Goodhouse is one of those novels that makes you ponder. The book’s central premise raises some interesting questions. Are we genetically predisposed to follow a certain path? Is it the case that just because you could do something, means that you will?
Where the story really excels is in the descriptions of the life James is forced to lead. Marshall does a skilful job describing the brutal conditions that he must endure. There is a strict hierarchy within the Goodhouse, and everyone has to comply immediately or face the often-violent consequences. The writing deftly taps into what is essentially a prison culture. It captures the sense of confinement, that feeling of claustrophobia so strong it is almost palpable. On the flipside of that, there are also a handful of scenes where James finds himself outside the Goodhouse. His awkwardness relating to the real world feels very real. Along with all his fellow inmates he has become entirely institutionalized and is quickly adrift whenever rules and regulations are removed. It’s deeply ironic, as leaving the Goodhouse far behind is the very thing that he constantly dreams about.
The other main character in the book is Bethany. She is the antithesis of James, a free spirit who views most rules as guidelines at best. The dynamic between the two works well. James is initially confused by almost everything Bethany says or does. He has no idea how to act whenever she appears. Bethany is something totally alien to his regimented existence. As the relationship between the two deepens, James starts to realise that there is much more to life than what goes on in the Goodhouse.
On top of all the problems within the institution, James also has to contend with the Holy Redeemer’s Church of Purity. This group see the Goodhouse, and more importantly its residents, as a blight on society that need to be removed permanently. James has come across these fanatics before and is still haunted by the events that transpired. He knows that they are targeting all of the Goodhouses across America, and it is only a matter of time before he crosses paths with them again. In this strand of the narrative, the author gets the opportunity to explore attitudes towards organised religion, and how it can both corrupt and be corrupted. This adds extra depth to the plot and is a welcome addition. It makes James’ journey that much more engrossing.
The science fiction elements of this book are very subtly handled, and I rather like that approach. There is nothing massively overt or unbelievable. There are just a few glimpses of technology that doesn’t quite exist yet but this still manages to feel grounded and realistic. I think it’s a good sign that the science fiction could be removed from the plot entirely and the novel would still function perfectly well and continue to be a compelling read.
The only thing I think that was missing for me is that I would have liked to have learned more about the other residents of the Goodhouse. I can appreciate that James is very much the focus of the narrative but other than some details regarding his roommate we don’t learn much more about anyone else. The author does such a good job exploring the horrors that James is forced to endure, and he is so well observed I would have liked to have learned that same level of detail about some of the other characters.
Overall, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking debut. The subject matter may well be considered controversial by some but it’s handled in a very even handed and contemplative manner. I do enjoy fiction like this, that forces the reader to engage, to consider and to have an opinion. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more from Peyton Marshall in the future.
Goodhouse is published by Doubleday and is available now.