The University of Iowa

Book Review: Peyton Marshall’s Goodhouse

Set in a not-too-distant-future, Peyton Marshall’s Goodhouse follows off-kilter protagonist James through the future juvenile criminal justice system. The boys in the Goodhouse system are tested at a young age for genetic markers that indicate violent tendencies, and if they test positive they are the subjected to treatment and reeducation which solidifies, if not creates, that supposed criminality. James himself enters into the system at a very young age, and all of his experience is informed by his time within the walls of different Goodhouses, which read as boarding schools, prisons, and incubators for violence in varying degrees.  

Though Marshall sets her novel in a close but distinct American future, her inspiration for the Goodhouse system stemmed from research into the Preston School of Industry, a reform school which shares a town with the fictional school that James attends in the novel. The real life Preston Castle is best known now for its alleged ghosts, including former wards and a disgruntled housekeeper, but the northern California correctional institute in Goodhouse has to deal with the more terrifying specter of the Zeros, a religious extremist group which attacks the schools and their residents. The Zeros represent ultimate fear for the Goodhouse boys, and for James especially. His transfer to the Ione Goodhouse was prompted by an attack on his former school, from which he was the only survivor.  

Marshall’s novel definitely operates within the increasingly popular genre of the dystopian novel but what makes Goodhouse stand out is its acknowledgment of its literary roots. George Orwell's classic 1984 constantly hovers in the margins, and makes a direct appearance when James is asked to report to "Room 101". Bethany, the female character and supporting protagonist, is reminiscent of the hyper-sexual Julia from Orwell's novel, in that she is constantly aware of her physical reality. However, what tethers Bethany to her body is not only a rebellious sexuality but her physical infirmity. She has a defective heart, an obvious enough symbol. Though James and Bethany's romance does call to mind the clandestine romance in 1984, Bethany reads as a modern day answer the archetypal Julia, who is identified as a rebel only "from the waist downwards." Bethany is a rebel through and through. She knows how to manipulate code and infiltrates the Goodhouse computer system multiple times in order to contact James and arrange meetings with him. She also has a good, though biased, understanding of the larger socio-political currents that affect James and his peers.  

Goodhouse includes, but does not linger on, the technological and scientific advances that are usually present in sci-fi novels. It is refreshing to have them present but not explicitly explained. The sci-fi element is there but only when it is useful, and never does it detract from the strength and individuality of the characters. Marshall's first novel will hold its own on a shelf with the best of Young Adult fiction -- after reading it make sure to place it among your favorites. ​


Peyton Marshall is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  Her work has appeared in The New York TimesTin House, A Public Space, Etiquetta Negra, BlackbirdFive Chapters, and Best New American VoicesGoodhouse is her first novel and can be purchased here.