The Death House
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Published by: Gollancz
Publication date: 26 Feb 2015
Page count: 288
Sometime in the future, a wayward gene is discovered with seemingly huge implications for the world population. Any children carrying this gene are labelled as “Defective” and taken from their homes to an isolated house situated on a bleak island to live out the remainder of their days under the supervision of the ominous Matron and a staff of nurses and teachers. On becoming ill, they are sent to the mysterious Sanatorium from which they never return.
Toby has been wrenched from his family and is growing accustomed to the house when a series of events, starting with the arrival of a young girl, Clara takes his life in a new direction. We see short flashbacks of his former life throughout, describing an existence that to us seems mundane, but are all the more tragic given the situation he finds himself in.
As his relationship with Clara begins to grow into something more serious, Toby begins to take chances, sneaking out at night and exploring the house and the island outside, until he makes a discovery that changes everything.
It would be easy to be cynical about this story, given some of the recent successes in this genre, but Sarah Pinborough has thankfully gone to great pains to distance this novel from the plethora of overhyped marketing exercises masquerading as literature that constantly bombard young people with overused tropes, slick one-word titles and dubious romance. Indeed, Pinborough does her best to appeal to adult readers as well as the target audience.
The writing is beautifully contrasted with subtle moments often giving way to the crude nature of teenage interaction, while more tense moments creep up unexpectedly in all the right places, heralding the more tragic events.
As is inevitable in these situations, with the children being left largely to their own devices, groups begin to emerge, alliances begin to form and bullying rears its ugly head. It comes as some surprise that one of the few books the children are allowed to read is The Lord Of The Fliesgiven the parallels, but I think one of the underlying achievements of The Death House is that it rises above the hopelessness of Golding’s story into something much more inspirational, although still as tragic.
The author takes a risk in leaving much to the imagination of the reader, although this ultimately pays off. Very little detail is given about what exactly makes the subjects “defective” or the reasons for imprisoning them in such a remote area. What happens when the children are taken to the sanatorium is gleamed purely from speculation by the children themselves, which seems to allude to some sort of transformation taking place. It’s precisely this lack of detail however that makes the darker moments in the book all the more unsettling.
The Death House is a breathtaking, relevant and tragic coming of age story that unlike many of its peers remains true to itself and its characters from start to finish. Compelling and unforgettable, its events will resonate with readers long after.
5 out of 5 Nerds