Peyton Marshall (www.peytonmarshall.com)
In a near-future America, the genetic markers for violence and criminal behaviour have been identified, and the male relatives of anyone who has ever been charged with committing a crime are tested shortly after birth. Those found to possess the same genetic makeup as their criminal forebears are removed to the Goodhouse system, a series of school-cum-prisons across the country whose sole purpose is to nurture these boys away from any criminal predisposition so that they can safely join civilisation when they turn 18. James is one such boy, a resident of the Goodhouse system since he was three years old, he is a relative newcomer to the California Goodhouse; previously based at La Pine, Oregon, James was one of the few survivors of a Zero attack on the Goodhouse. Now, as the system prepares to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and James approaches his own eighteenth birthday, he discovers that there are people who have a more sinister purpose for the Goodhouse system and that only he has the power, and the information, to expose their schemes to the world, and save the boys with whom he is incarcerated.
Peyton Marshall’s debut novel is the latest in a long and prestigious line of dystopias which take as their central conceit the idea of preventing crime before it happens, rather than dealing with the aftermath. While Goodhouse does have a number of plot holes (why is the Goodhouse system populated only by boys? And how, exactly, can security be so lax that these institutions can so easily be infiltrated by the Zeros who, presumably, share the same genetic markers as the boys on the inside?) it’s an interesting premise and one that Marshall examines in some depth as the story progresses, though never, it must be pointed out, at the cost of the story’s forward momentum.
We see this world through the eyes of James, a young man who has been in Goodhouse since he was three years old. James has no idea who his parents are – family records are destroyed and the boys are renamed, to prevent any future contact – and is facing the prospect of being released into the world once he turns eighteen. The recent attack on his original Goodhouse home, in rural Oregon, has seen him moved to California where things are done differently enough to make the transition jarring for James. Marshall has spent some time creating both the outside world, and the world inhabited by these boys in Goodhouse: they have developed means of communication that circumvent the almost-total ban on talking, and their assignment to different status levels are determined by past behaviour and have some impact on how they behave in the future (Level 1 brings with it perks and benefits that no boy wants to lose, if at all possible).
Into this strictly ordered world, Marshall introduces Bethany, a girl slightly younger than James who takes an unhealthy interest in him. Also taking an unhealthy interest is Bethany’s father, a doctor who lives and works on campus and who James recognises from his previous life at La Pine. Dr Cleveland pulls strings to ensure that he has almost-unlimited access to James, and from here things start to go south for the young man. Escape and re-incarceration ensue as we’re taken on a fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat journey to an outside world where there are mixed emotions about the Goodhouse system and the boys who are under its care. James and Bethany discover that some of the medical research is less than legal, and that the company that funds much of the research is set to make billions of dollars at the cost of these boys’ lives.
Using first-person narrative, and telling the story from the point of view of James, who knows little of the outside world, it is no surprise that Goodhouse leaves a lot of questions unanswered or, at best, only briefly explained: who, for example, are the Zeros, and what is their problem with the Goodhouse system? These are concerns for the reader once the book is done; whilst reading, we find ourselves in the moment, following in James’ footsteps as he navigates this strange new world in which he finds himself. The story is constructed in a way that pulls the reader along, giving us – as it does James – very little time to stop and think as the tension mounts and the action explodes off the page.
Well-constructed, and nicely told, with a strong cast of diverse characters (despite the institutional setting) Goodhouse is an excellent debut, and a fine addition to the dystopian genre. While not perfect, it still has plenty to make it a worthwhile – and wholly enjoyable – read, and flags Peyton Marshall as a name to watch in the future. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you like your action fast and violent, and enjoy interesting takes on our possible future, then Goodhouse should definitely be on your list.