Review: The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan

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As a rule, I prefer reviewing books that are brilliant but flawed, since usually they are the only ones that can’t be reduced to a couple of sentences. This is not one of those. Since I finished it, I’ve been gushing about it to everyone who’d listen. Seeking out fanart. Taking pauses and breaks, because just like its inhabitants I didn’t want to leave. It’s brilliant, it’s criminally underrated, and while I realise that it’s not for everyone, it’s probably the best book I’ve ever read.

The House demands a reverent attitude. A sense of mystery. Respect and awe. It can accept you or not, shower you with gifts or rob you of everything you have, immerse you in a fairy tale or a nightmare. Kill you, make you old, give you wings … It’s a powerful and fickle deity, and if there’s one thing it can’t stand, it’s being reduced to mere words.

True to the quote, it’s rather hard to describe. The story takes place in the titular House, a boarding school for disabled children and teens. But it is, obviously, much more than that. Genre-wise, it’s the closest to Magical Realism or perhaps Literary Fantasy. If I had to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s a bit like The Secret History crossed with Every Heart a Doorway with a heavy dash of surrealism thrown into the mix. Well, not really. But they are the only books I can think of that come even slightly close.

We start with Smoker, being thrown out from the orderly, straight-laced Pheasants who live in the House, but are not really of it, into the chaotic Fourth and the House proper; with all its Laws, customs, taboos, and strange things taking place. It’s full of camaraderie, humour, creepiness, eccentric characters, delightful absurdity, sides both dark and light, relatively realistic and surreal, serious and not. The plot is slow and meandering and the supernatural elements aren’t immediately obvious – it takes quite a while to go from “Is that guy having some weird delusion or does he really…?” to the point where it can’t be handwaved away anymore and becomes obvious there must be something to it all.

The characters are colourful, known only by their nicknames (even the counsellors) and while not everyone is particularily likable, I found all of them interesting, though to go into any specifics would quickly stray into spoiler territory. My only complaint would be that in the middle of book two, when female characters are introduced, they are defined mostly in terms of their relationship to our male protagonists, but luckily, it improves somewhat when some get their own POV chapters.

I also think the portrayal of disability was very well done. It does impact their lives, it’s not ignored or forgotten, but at the same time it does not define them. They aren’t pitiful, they aren’t grotesque, they are neither saints nor villains, they aren’t magically cured by the end, and they are certainly not used for inspiration porn. In short, they are human.

And despite it being a translation, the prose is incredible, beautiful and vividly descriptive without ever being hard to read or obscuring the story underneath, something not even The Winged Histories managed. With multiple POVs, multiple timelines in which some of the characters have different nicknames, little explanation (even though Smoker likes asking questions, he doesn’t always get answers, and some of the terminology is known even to him), and all narrators being highly unreliable, making sense of what is going on can be difficult, and in words usually used for describing a very different series, being confused is completely normal. It’s also full of allusions and references and all sorts of goodies for the careful (re)reader and the ending is, as befits the story, something of a mindfuck. If you can’t sit back and enjoy the ride, if you like your stories straightforward and linear and making sense all the way through, it’s probably not the book for you.

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: prose fans, those looking for complex, character-driven books or disability representation
Not recommended to: those looking for clear, straightforward, fast-paced stories

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan”

  1. So in another comment I mentioned that I wasn’t in the mood for non-straight forward stories. This is one of the exceptions. I’m so here for all of this and reading your review only made me more interested in it. ❤ I can't /wait/.

    Thanks for reviewing~.

    Liked by 1 person

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