The Gray House by Mariam Petrosyan review – a cult magical realist saga

A runaway success in Russia, translated into English at last, this epic set in a school for students with disabilities offers so much more than a Soviet Hogwarts

Gangs of teenagers have strange adventures in a rambling boarding school on the edge of town: it sounds like a premise for a children’s book. But Mariam Petrosyan’s first novel, a 732-page magical realist saga two decades in the writing that has been a cult success in Russia, has unexpected depths as well as lashings of alcohol and violence. The Gray House is enigmatic and fantastical, comic and postmodern, flawed but brilliant, with elements of multiple genres – Rowling meets Rushdie via Tartt.

It is the latest offering from AmazonCrossing, which now produces more books in translation than any other US publisher, focusing on popular and accessible fiction. Marian Schwartz, who translates for them, says: “Amazon may be bad for booksellers, but I don’t see AmazonCrossing being bad for literary translation.” The problem is sales: the books are not often available in shops and are rarely reviewed because “everyone hates Amazon”. So can The Gray House be successful in English?

In the mid-1990s, Petrosyan, an Armenian graphic artist, showed friends in Moscow the manuscript of her then-unfinished novel. Passed from hand to hand, it found its way to a publisher in 2009. The following year, it was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and won several awards. It has since inspired postgraduate dissertations, Instagram pages of fan art and long signing queues. But Petrosyan has refused to write a sequel or sell the film rights to this complex and unusual epic. 

The House is a school for students with disabilities; this literary ruse to isolate the protagonists is also an integral part of the novel’s exploration of identity. The teenagers use wheelchairs or prosthetics and the leader of the house is blind. Mundane details may not always ring true, but there is nothing sentimental or tokenistic about these wisecracking young adults, sporting dreadlocks, tattoos and a murderball-style physicality.

Different characters narrate an overlapping series of events. Most of them are known only by a pseudonym or “nick”. We first experience the house through the eyes of Smoker; he is an outsider, who moves from the conformist “Pheasants” dormitory to the anarchic “Fourth”. Alternating with this are flashback chapters in which, confusingly, several people have different, earlier nicknames. Petrosyan excels at the fresh details that make up individual personalities. One inscrutable youngster likes “seltzer, stray dogs, striped awnings, round stones” and hates “white clothing, lemons … the scent of chamomile”.

Individuality is a central theme, producing a symphony of narrative voices. “Everyone chooses his own House. It is we who make it interesting or dull,” explains a student called Sphinx. Later Sphinx tells his girlfriend, one of the novel’s relatively rare female characters: “Whoever’s telling the story creates the story. No single story can describe reality exactly the way it was.” 

The number of narrators proliferates, including the appealing figure of Tabaqui the Jackal, whose entries provide a kind of authorial manifesto: “I don’t like stories. I like moments. I like night better than day, moon better than sun, and here-and-now better than sometime-later.” Tabaqui embodies Petrosyan’s inventiveness, her resistance to chronology, her penchant for false trails and signs. 

The house, it emerges, has hidden dimensions. Petrosyan plays with space and time, introducing parallel loops of narrative and a weird “Forest” with its own impenetrable laws. This boundless psychogeography distinguishes the school from a gritty Soviet version of Hogwarts, although there are superficial similarities – dorms that are sorted by personality types, mentions of dragons and basilisks.

At other times, there are echoes of Lord of the Flies: rival gangs of ungovernable boys, face painting, fires. Songs and fairytales are part of the textual patchwork, along with all kinds of allusions, from Hieronymus Bosch to the Kama Sutra. Petrosyan’s stylistic quirks match her flamboyant protagonists; one gothic-sounding sentence, rich in sub-clauses, lasts a page and a half. Yuri Machkasov’s translation is a Herculean feat. The intriguing original title, The House, In Which …, has gone, but Machkasov has captured the novel’s poetic richness.

The Gray House is a Marmite book: worshipped by some, criticised by others as meandering nonsense, lacking either true magic or convincing realism. The plot can feel frustratingly serpentine, but, as Tabaqui explains: “Life does not go in a straight line.” To its most ardent fans, a spell in Petrosyan’s mysterious house is nothing short of life-changing.


Phoebe Taplin

The GuardianTramp

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