(2017) Sarah Pinborough, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 275pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22284-7
It is surprising how much the title of this book and the reputation of the author made me nervous to read it. I have read a fair bit of Sarah Pinborough’s other work before, but not her darker novels and my first assumption, coming at this cold, was that it would be the darkest of the very dark. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself mistaken.
Children are being taken from their families and brought to the Death House – a quarantined complex on a remote island. Toby and his friends live strange lives in this awful boarding school. They are constantly monitored by nurses, looking for the slightest hint of sickness. Anyone who expresses symptoms can be whisked away in the night to the sanatorium, never to be seen again. The different dorms group together like gangs and Toby sees their gradual decline in numbers as a macabre game, with each little group racing towards oblivion.
But occasionally, new children arrive to replenish the numbers. When Clara joins the girl’s dorm, for a time, Toby rouses himself from despair. Clara brings with her a new perspective: life needs to be lived whilst you have it.
For a dark story to work best, there has to be hope. Pinborough delivers just enough of this through Clara and the little mysteries of the Death House for us to believe Toby might find a way out to a better life. Although, if he truly does have an incurable and contagious disease, allowing him to escape the quarantine of the island might not be the best outcome for the rest of society. The perspective here is intentionally slewed to that of the interned inmate, focusing on the injustice of Toby’s plight and the plight of his friends who slowly disappear. The sickness they get is built up by Pinborough by ensuring we do not see the worst of it, as those who exhibit symptoms are taken away.
We also get a little backstory, told to us through flashbacks to Toby’s earlier life, and some knowledge of the other children’s pasts as they get to know each other. In this more than anything else, the setting comes across as quintessentially British, depicting familiar class structures that we might have seen in the late twentieth century.
There are some wonderfully moving touches to the narrative as Pinborough indulges herself in a few set pieces and familiar tropes. Children playing in the snow, stealing alcohol from Matron’s office, love triangles amongst teenagers and more are all themes we have seen before, but they take on a new light when the spectre of a fatal illness always lurks in the shadows. The presence of adults as nurses, teachers and other supervising staff is constantly reinforced, remaining both threatening and distant until intervention is required, and another child disappears.
The focus on teenage children left to develop their own social hierarchies invokes a comparison with Lord of the Flies, but really, in Death House, Pinborough is doing her own thing. Structures are constantly rendered temporal, not just because of the changing relationships between the characters, but also because of the external forces at work.
The ending when it comes, maintains a sense of hope and despair, with both Toby and Clara keeping secrets from each other as they struggle to escape their fates. Their confessions to each other are poignant and moving, creating an outcome which gives the book a sense of completeness. All the themes are drawn together here, and whilst the world of Death House could be revisited by Pinborough if she chose, the reader is not left unsatisfied by any aspect or loose end.
Death House is an excellent read, full of memorable characters and themes, with a clear comment on modern society. We should all try to be like Clara in life; climbing trees, running in the sea and having adventures whilst we can as you never know what tomorrow might bring.
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