House of the free spirits
Ms. Petrosyan is an Armenian who writes in Russian. Her greatest strengths here are her worldbuilding 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 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.