Mariam Petrosyan, The Gray House, Trans. by Yuri Machkasov, AmazonCrossing, 2017.
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.
Petrosyan’s award-winning debut novel, translated from Russian, is a vividly imagined tale of epic proportions.
The House, which sits overlooked on the outskirts of town, is a boarding school for disabled children and teenagers. Isolated from the Outsides, the residents of the House are enmeshed in a carefully constructed world of unspoken rules and thorny histories. The meandering narrative moves back and forth in time, alternating narrators and tenses, to paint an intricate portrait of a social order that appears ultimately dictated by an unknown force, understood by its inhabitants to be the House itself. When student deaths begin to pile up over the course of the narrative, readers can identify with newcomer Smoker as he tries to understand the mysteries of the House and the source of its power over its inhabitants. Petrosyan has created a painstakingly three-dimensional, fully inhabited world. Slowly but surely, the plot reveals itself through a gradual process of unraveling, leading readers down a sprawling rabbit hole of intrigue and mysteries, accompanied by a dizzying array of quirky denizens. Petrosyan’s prose is wildly imaginative and beautifully wrought, overflowing in Machkasov’s translation with rich sensory details that combine with an offbeat sense of humor to form a fully realized world. This dense, heady tale should be enjoyed by seasoned readers of literary fiction and magical realism. Although it is being marketed in the U.S. for teens, it will perhaps find its most natural audience among adult readers.
An impressive—and impressively massive—feat of imagination and translation. - Kirkus Review
Speculative fiction isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Tea drinkers, however, will happily drown in Mariam Petrosyan’s oversized samovar of a novel, “The Gray House.” Written over a period of 18 years and clocking in at 800 pages, the novel practically dares readers to step inside and stay awhile.
Those who rise to the challenge will find a carefully constructed narrative that borrows heavily from “Lord of the Flies” by way of “House of Leaves” and “Peter Pan.” The lost boys in question live in a facility for children and teens with disabilities. Dumped there by families who can’t — or won’t — care for them, the children are loosely supervised by a handful of indifferent teachers and counselors under the half-hearted leadership of an eccentric principal.
Left to their own devices, the boys create an intricate culture for themselves, complete with tribes, nicknames and an ethical code called “the Law,” which is obeyed without question. This culture revolves around the House itself, and its mythology — which spans decades — is so intricate that even careful readers might miss important details. Whether you’re willing to read it again for nuance depends entirely on whether you have accepted the House ... or, perhaps, whether the House has accepted you.
Ms. Petrosyan is an Armenian who writes in Russian. Her greatest strengths here are her world-building and linguistic creativity, although one has to wonder how much of a role translator Yuri Machkasov plays in casting that spell. Beginning with a straightforward, realistic style, Ms. Petrosyan slowly and carefully leads the reader step by step through suspension of belief to the House’s inner workings, which manifest in increasingly fluid sentences and offbeat vocabulary.
“The Law” isn’t explained so much as it’s absorbed, as the reader is gradually initiated into its secrets. The glacial pace used to accomplish this might frustrate some people, but anyone who likes nonlinear narrative will be captivated as the story zig-zags through time.
The plot isn’t exactly straightforward either, which is, perhaps, the point. The House’s residents have no reason — or desire — to return to a world that stigmatizes their wheelchairs, prosthetics and other physical and mental differences. It’s logical, then, that the House’s normal rituals and routines become anxious and frantic in the weeks leading up to graduation, occasionally leading to events Shirley Jackson would appreciate.
When the adults finally catch on to the pattern and try to prevent it, the children--and the House--take matters into their own hands. This storyline, however, is just one of the House’s many rituals and shouldn’t be considered a traditional horror story.
The boys themselves are a mixed bag of snarly and sensitive. Smoker, the most relatable of the bunch, is the reader’s ally in trying to navigate an environment that makes no sense to him. Sphinx and Black engage in the constant bickering anyone who’s ever been at the bottom of a social pecking order knows about all too well. Blind holds the key to many of the House’s mysteries, but he’s not telling.
Even Ralph, the lone counselor who suspects there’s more to the boys than meets the eye, never fully understands what’s happening around him until it’s too late.
This reviewer’s favorite, however, is the mischievous trickster Tabaqui, who frequently bursts into song, and whose inner monologues include poetic passages that could stand alone as good literature.
Although they refer to themselves as dogs, rats and other animals, each boy is, for better and worse, all too human.
“The Gray House” won’t please everybody, but its intended audience will savor each page and flip right back to the beginning after finishing. Hats off, then, to Mariam Petrosyan for a surreal ride through an unconventional universe. - Leigh Anne Focareta
Mariam Petrosyan was born in 1969 in Yerevan, Armenia. In 1989 she graduated with a degree in applied arts and worked in the animation department of Armenfilm movie studio. In 1992 she moved to Moscow to work at Soyuzmultfilm studio, then returned to Yerevan in 1995.
The Gray House is Petrosyan’s debut novel. After working on it for eighteen years, she published it in Russia in 2009, and it became an instant bestseller, winning several of the year’s top literary awards, including the Russian Prize for the best book by a Russian author living abroad. The book has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and Lithuanian.
In interviews Petrosyan frequently says that readers should not expect another book from her, since, for her, The Gray House is not merely a book but a world she knew and could visit, and she doesn’t know another one.
Petrosyan is married to Armenian artist Artashes Stamboltsyan. They have two children.