Fresh Meat: Goodhouse by Peyton Marshall

Goodhouse by Peyton Marshall is a dystopian societal thriller where DNA testing weeds out potentially dangerous boys and forces them into boarding schools that resemble prisons (available September 30, 2014).

What’s immediately really strong about Peyton Marshall’s novel is the premise itself. But why tell you myself, when her first pages do such a good job at heavy lifting?

Goodhouse had come out of an idea— a program meant to map the genetic profile of prison populations. What the researchers had found was this: The worst inmates, the most impulsive, the most violent, the least empathetic, all shared certain biometric markers. But these were prisoners. They cost the state millions of dollars to ware house every year. And they’d been children once. They had not always been beyond help. It was too late for adults, but young boys were different. They could be molded, instructed, taught. If intervention occurred at an early age, they could be salvaged. 

Based (loosely from what I can tell) on the Preston School of Industry (one the country’s first reform schools), Goodhouse is really ripe with tension from the start. In the not too distant future, we’ve figured out how to identify DNA markers that might – just might – be able to predict violent and criminal behavior in male children. So they all get shipped off to these boys’ schools-cum-juvenile detention centers called “Goodhouses” located throughout the country. Our point of view character is James, a Goodhouse student who recently transferred as his original Goodhouse was burned to the ground by religious zealots. So every scene, every moment not just full of tension, but all sorts of different kinds of tension happening at once.

What we have here at the Goodhouse is an isolated community that’s run by fear alone. And that seems to be enough. What’s interesting is that while there are moments of sheer terror, what the reader sees more often is the repercussions of living in that fear, being raised in it, and knowing nothing else, rather than resulting to “jump-scares”.  She does a great job of subtle but specific world building, creating a subculture rooted in fear and self-loathing.

The line to our left shuffled forward. Some boys appeared to be holding hands, but I knew they were palming— sending messages through sign language, one hand making shapes into the palm of another. It was extremely complex, all but unlearnable unless mastered young. As a transfer I was considered unlucky.

Not only do we see that complete and total silence is expected from these boys, but we see that they are so afraid to disobey that they develop their own silent hand-language. Chilling. We also see that our poor James is isolated even within the closed community. So it’s no surprise that things do not turn out all that well. 

There’s also something I like about James’s voice. He sounds a bit like he’s been raised in a cult, but that’s not entirely accurate. Its more like he he learned this language secondhand. Because essentially, he has. He owns nothing, not even his name, not even his language.  This seems especially pronounced when he meets Bethany, a girl from the Outside, during  a Community Day outing, when the boys are scheduled to spend the afternoon with members of the outside world:

“I read all the literature your school sent,” she said. “We’re supposed to evaluate your cleanliness, which struck me as bizarre. Wouldn’t the school know how clean you were? You’re hardly likely to get dirty coming over here. I felt like they were all fake questions.” I was so preoccupied with her lightly freckled shoulders and the thick, angry- looking scar on her chest that I didn’t immediately realize she’d gone silent.

“Excuse me?” I asked. I pretended to take a sip of the soda, but kept my lips tightly closed.

We’ve only heard the voices of the other boys in the Goodhouse, and their language varies from extremely formal or silent in their public spaces, to a kind of adolescent gross-out-cursing when alone. Hearing the voice of a teenage girl sounding like…well, sounding like a regular teenage girl, set the life James has at the Goodhouse in stark relief. 

So the story is moved forward, with some urgency, not just through the events that happen to James, but the tight panic of his voice, how at every turn, he might make a mistake. And he does, inevitably. And the repercussions are worse than I thought, and not in any way I anticipated. But what Peyton Marshall really does well is showing how all this fear and loathing gets turned internally on these boys, how it changes who they are. How if you aren’t a monster to begin with, the Goodhouse turns you into one.

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Amy Eller Lewis is a writer and Library Fairy in Southern New England. She works at one of the oldest libraries in the country, which is definitely haunted. Follow her on Twitter @amyellerlewis or on Tumblr:

Read all of Amy Eller Lewis's posts on Criminal Element.


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