Sarah Pinborough – The Death House

sarahpinborough-thedeathhouseToby’s life was perfectly normal… until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House: an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They’re looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it’s time to take them to the sanatorium.

No one returns from the sanatorium.

Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.

Because everybody dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts.

Sarah Pinborough is not only one of the more prolific British SFF writers, she’s also a very varied writer who switches between sub-genres with remarkable ease. Fantasy, racy fairytale retellings, science fiction, YA, she writes it all. When I heard about The Death House I was immediately intrigued. A dystopian YA story set at a boarding school from which no student ever graduates, it sounded but creepy and fascinating. Because why are they there and what is this disease that condemns them to be inmates of The Death House? Pinborough gives us some of the answers, but mostly she delivers an exquisite exploration of life and love in the face of death. 

The book is set at a country manor that serves as a combination of boarding school and hospice for teens who have tested positive for the genetic markers indicating a mysterious illness. Once tested positive, they are taken away from their families and kept at the House until death. The House’s location remains undisclosed and none of its inmates know where they are exactly. Add in the fact that they are cut off from contact with the outside world, no internet, no telephones, no contact at all and what is already a scary situation, becomes even more oppressive, both for the characters and the reader. In a way, the House becomes a character too, with its nighttime noises, its loud elevator that is always an ominous sign for someone, and its many empty spaces.

The book’s main character and narrator is Toby. At seventeen, he’s one of the older boys at the House and one of its senior residents left. He’s the leader of his dorm, by dint of age and the length of his stay and the boys of Dorm Four look to him for guidance and reassurance. I loved how Toby looked after his dorm-mates, even if he doesn’t particularly like all of them. Especially his care for Will and Louis was touching and his worry for them when disaster strikes, forcing Toby to take some really hard decisions, completely broke my heart. Toby’s grim existence is lightened by the arrival of Clara at the house. At first resentful of this new intruder into his peaceful nights roaming the House, he quickly falls under the spell of her vibrant personality and soon after falls in love. Pinborough develops this relationship beautifully, letting them explore love and each other to the fullest. Yet for the reader it is a bittersweet love, since there is definitely an expiration date on their romance; they haven’t been brought to Death House for nothing after all.

The group dynamics within the House are fascinating and well-explored. In this microcosm of a society there is still a struggle for supremacy in the hierarchy. It is visible in the way Toby squares off to Jake, the oldest boy of Dorm Seven and in the way they ‘keep score’ on which dorms are still complete and who have had more people disappear into the sanatorium. In a way it is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, especially given the isolated nature of the House. Pinborough acknowledges this with a wink, with Toby being set Golding’s book as a reading exercise in class. This pack mentality is only displayed more clearly when new inmates arrive at the House. The resentment at these ‘interlopers’ and their subsequent quick assimilation into the pecking order was fascinating to witness.

My one complaint with the book would be that there is so much we never learn. I would have loved to have learned more about the how and the why of the Death House? What is this disease they’ve tested positive for? What does it do? Why does it necessitate isolating these kids to the degree they are? But Toby and the rest don’t know, so the reader doesn’t know. On the other hand, it is this uncertainty – the unknowable future and the fear of any and all possible sniffle signalling the onset of the end – that lends The Death House its sense of dread and foreboding. No one is safe and despite all of them having a death sentence hanging over them, none of them want to be the next to be taken to the sanatorium. Even in a place where no one will get out alive, there are many secrets.

The Death House is a powerful character study, showing teens put in an untenable situation and still finding things to live for in each other and themselves. Toby faces love, life, and death with an unflinching regard and a brutal honesty. Pinborough ends Toby’s tale in a spectacular fashion, that left me shattered and sad, but also strangely hopeful. The Death House is a gorgeous book and if you haven’t yet, you should definitely read it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • Bibliotropic

    I’ve seen some mixed reviews for this one, but for all that I’ve seen it disappoint some readers, it’s still one that I’d love to track down and read for myself. I think it’s one that I’d end up enjoying, either way.