|THE DEATH HOUSE
Sarah Pinborough (sarahpinborough.com)
Released on 26th February 2015
Toby is a Defective. When the results of a blood test announce his death sentence he finds himself taken forcibly from his family and transported to an old manor house on a remote island in the far north. Toby is not alone: the Death House, as its residents come to know it, houses a group of children aged between 10 and 18 who are all as doomed as Toby. Watched over by Matron and her nurses, the children await the first symptoms of illness which will signal their transfer to the sanatorium on the top floor of the house. No-one ever comes back from the sanatorium.
Toby and the other boys spend their days waiting for the end, each with their own little tricks to help pass the time. Toby refuses to take the sleeping pills that are handed out before bed, and so spends every night wandering the big house alone; this is his time, his secret. When a new batch of Defectives arrive, they bring with them Clara, who quickly invades Toby’s night time domain. As animosity turns to friendship and love begins to blossom, the pair realise that there are better things to do than sit around waiting to die.
First things first: Sarah Pinborough’s latest novel, The Death House, made me cry. Now that that’s out in the open, let’s talk about what you can expect from this beautiful little book.
It’s tough to pin Pinborough down: she is, perhaps, best known for the horror fiction that began her career, through dark crime novels and adult (by all accounts) re-workings of classic fairy tales. Then she throws us a curveball: last year’s wonderful The Language of Dying and, now, The Death House. Set on a remote island in an undefined future time (it has been 100 years since snow fell in England, is the best landmark we have), Pinborough introduces us to a group of boys and girls who have been hidden away from society because they have been classed as Defective.
We’re never quite sure what it means to be Defective: each child’s symptoms are different; it only strikes children under the age of eighteen; it’s a rare occurrence now, but was once a widespread plague. What we do know, as we watch events unfold through the eyes of Toby, one of the older boys in the house, is that these children are frightened and, despite the other children around them, very much alone. Assigned to different dormitories, battle lines are drawn, one dorm against the other, a tacit competition to see which group will last the longest before one of their members succumbs to illness.
What is fascinating here is how well-developed Toby is as a character. Pinborough manages to get inside this teenage boy’s head to show us how he thinks and reacts. Through flashbacks, we see a typical teenager with a one-track mind; as his relationship with Clara develops, and love blossoms, we see how quickly he matures, how his language and mannerisms change, and how it affects his relationships with the others in the house.
It’s easy to see, as we read, some of the novels that influenced The Death House. The most obvious, probably because Pinborough references it directly in the story, is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Rather than the desert island scenario, we find ourselves in a large, remote house, in the midst of a group of largely autonomous children who have formed into a number of factions. The formation of Ashley’s church causes these factions to fragment, and re-form, in much the same way that the boys’ allegiances change through the course of Golding’s classic novel. The other – and, for me, stronger – influence that we find is that of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with the strangely emotionless and, ultimately, quite cruel Matron playing the role of Nurse Ratched.
At the centre of the novel, despite the science fiction or horror elements that set the scene, is the developing relationship between Toby and Clara. Full of innocence, it develops into the intense and emotional story of a pair of doomed lovers making the best of the very short time they have left to them. Omnia vincit amor, Virgil tells us: Love conquers all. It’s a message that forms the solid foundation of The Death House, but don’t be fooled; there is horror to come, scenes that will rock the reader to the core and drive us to question the author’s parentage. Pinborough has us in the palm of her hand from that opening line (“’They say it makes your eyes bleed. Almost pop out of your head and then bleed.’”) and there is no escape. Haunting and beautiful, The Death House will stay with you long after you’ve read the final page.
Sarah Pinborough proves yet again that she is an exceptional writer regardless of genre. And therein lies her biggest problem. I’m not sure how Gollancz aim to market this one: science fiction? Dystopia? Young adult? Either way, its audience is likely to be limited to people who read the genre in question. The Death House, Pinborough’s finest novel to date, should be required reading for everyone who enjoys spending time with a good book. A worthy successor to those great books that influenced it, The Death House is the best book you’ll read in 2015, guaranteed, and Sarah Pinborough cements her place as one of our finest living novelists.