Either I’ve been reading too much dystopian fiction recently or Goodhouse just isn’t very, well…err… good. It wears its influences like a badge and fails to live up to any of them. The entire time I was reading, I was reminded of other books. At no time did I think ‘this is quality and original fiction’. It adds nothing to the canon that has come before it.
The novel is set at the turn of the 21st century. Scientists have been able to determine whether somebody is genetically predisposed to becoming a criminal. If so, they are sent to a ‘Goodhouse’ to learn to override any negative impulses they may have and so become model citizens. Like all places where boys are sent to be reformed this entails being mistreated on a regular basis. Strong medication, electronic tagging and almost continuous surveillance allows no time for personal space or freedom of expression. The inmates have been found guilty before doing anything wrong.
The Goodhouse is effectively a fictional representation of the Stanford Prison experiment. The guards (proctors) are horrible, the ‘Class Leaders’, (students elevated to a position of authority amongst the Goodhouse population) are worse. Abuse is endemic but the powers that oversee the Goodhouses don’t much care. The system is meant to prevent the creation of criminals, but it’s evident to us as readers that it does the complete opposite.
This is the first problem of the novel. It’s too heavy handed. We are left in no doubt as to the rottenness of the system. It has no redeeming features. It’s hard to credit such a system could exist. I’m not suggesting this sort of thing didn’t, doesn’t or wouldn’t go on, because it’s a massive problem in all penal systems, but the whole system here seems to have been set up to abuse children innocent of any crime, and it doesn’t ring true. Compare this with devastating analysis found in Rene Denefeld’s The Enchanted, and Goodhouse starts to look like the Shawshank Redemption written with a crayon. The system is so obviously going to cause criminality it’s akin to trying to prevent obesity with continuous access to cream cakes.
On the outside there are Christian fundamentalist terrorists who want all the Goodhouse boys to burn. The lead character (James) has been their victim before, when his previous, more provincial, gentle Goodhouse was burned down. These fundamentalists take their cue from a particular passage in the bible pertaining to the eradication of weeds by fire. I quite like this literal-reading-of-the bible-gone-wrong approach, but the ‘zeros’ feel like action movie equivalents of the groups in Elliott Hall’s excellent Strange Trilogy series. Their symbol is a lightning bolt through a circle, a symbol that brings to mind, altogether too unfortunately, the Mokingjay pendant from The Hunger Games.
The the less obvious villain of the piece, a school doctor, who may or may not be on James’s side, again feels like a substandard import from other books, in particular the manipulative doctor from Julianna Baggott’s considerably more ambitious ‘Pure’ trilogy. In my Fuse review, I described Ellery Willux as Mayor Prentiss (from Patrick Ness’s sublime Chaos Walking trilogy) with much guile and subtlety removed. Goodhouse’s Dr Cleveland is further down the ladder still. It perhaps best displays how much I failed to buy into this book (and how two-dimensional I found it) that I pictured Cleveland to be the duplicitous mayor and Fred’s dad from Scooby Doo – Mystery incorporated. Not a ringing endorsement.
The plot consists of James being mistreated and pushed from one dodgy part of the Goodhouse to the next, being demerited for stuff he didn’t do. Inevitably he gets pissed off and his darker side comes out. There’s some convoluted plot about the terrorists that doesn’t really make much sense and a big explosion. There is, inevitably, some love interest. The girl from the good family, who wants a bit of rough, who is far more devious and underhand than the potential criminal she’s attracted to. It’s all so predictable. Throw in some implausible coincidence and you have the perfect recipe for a frustrating book.
I’ve gone to town on what’s bad about this book, but it does have some good qualities. It’s readable. Despite my misgivings, I didn’t want to stop reading. Partly in hope that hidden depths would be revealed, but mostly because I did care about what happened to James. There are some worthwhile observations made about the perils of incarceration and institutionalised abuse. As the novel closes there are also some touching moments between the boys who have had to bond together in order to survive their ordeal.
All in all though this is not a happy dystopia. The set up was interesting but a heavy handed approach has obliterated the chance to explore the case for nature over nurture. Old tropes and characters have been reused to bring nothing new. Goodhouse is readable, but then so is a cereal packet.
Many thanks to the team at Doubleday for sending me a copy of this book.