Mariam Petrosyan is an Armenian-born author living in Russia. The Gray House is her debut novel, and she says her only novel. Although it’s a prize winner in Russia, I found it confusing and often amateurish. My main feeling at the end is, “thank goodness that’s over.”

Based in a boarding school for kids with disabilities, Petrosyan doesn’t organize her narrative in a logical manner. She introduces a character, gives them a chapter, and doesn’t explain how they fit. And this is how it goes, for hundreds of pages. Ultimately, the story narrows to a couple of boys as they grow into young men. 

Even then, Petrosyan plays fast and loose with timelines. For example, there’s one character who has two separate names (both nicknames) in the book. I think part of the early chapters are in his voice, and then his nickname is changed offstage. Or I missed the explanation somehow because my mind wandered often during the audiobook. Embarrassing to admit, but I submit it’s not my fault. Petrosyan winds back and forth between these two names and time periods without ever explaining they’re the same person.

My conclusions

All I can tell you is not to invest 36 hours of precious time listening to this one. I should’ve bailed after a few hundred pages. But in the back of my head, I imagined Petrosyan would pull the disparate pieces together into something cohesive. And it does get a tad bit better. But not enough to score it more than one star out of five.

I will say that reading about kids in a boarding school struck me for two reasons. First, I attended a boarding school from grades 8-12. The first year, I lived in the dorms and the cliques and traditions were strong. But nothing like The Gray House, believe me. 

Second, the tragedy of Canadian residential schools for First Nations kids is all over the news right now. I just read Seven Fallen Feathers by indigenous author Tanya Talaga, which addresses specific incidents in Northern Ontario. So, as I read Petrosyan, I often wondered if the kids in The Gray House were also marginalized beyond just their disabilities. 

Petrosyan needed major editing of both story and style. She wanders, obfuscates, and never reveals a clear story arc. Plus, instead of describing why her characters felt as they did, she overuses adverbs ending in -ly. Since I just read a book discussing this tendency (among others), I was acutely aware of how often she ignored the advice to avoid adverbs. 

Recommended only if you need a completely weird and unsatisfying book. Or if you need a book with ties to Armenia, like I did for a reading challenge.