The Death House by Sarah Pinborough
Toby’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Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear.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.
As a rule, the things that frighten me are the things I tend to become most obsessed with. Death is right up there at the top of the list. It’s that ultimate fear of the unknown and I actively spend a great deal of my free time thinking about it. I know that may sound a horribly morbid, but honestly it not. I’ve come to the conclusion that this fear is what drives many people in their day to day lives; they may not even be consciously aware of it, but it is always there driving them on. What would happen though if you were forced to face this fear head on? How would you cope with this realisation if it occurred before you had even started to live your life properly?
Toby is angry at the world, angry at a fate that has ripped him away from him family and left him to see out his days without them. He has lost interest in everything and everyone else. Little by little, he is becoming more introverted and less engaged with the world. When Clara arrives in Toby’s life, he has just about reached rock bottom. She is the polar opposite to everything he is used to. Clara is an enigma, a free spirit. She lives in the moment and dreams of escape. Her only thoughts are of enjoying whatever time she has left somewhere far away from their forced incarceration. As their relationship deepens and feelings develop on both sides, Toby begins to imagine a possible life beyond the walls of the house.
The evolving relationship between the two is where the writing excels. There are a host of scenes where it becomes easy to forget that Toby and Clara are still just teenagers, and others where it is all too obvious that they both still are. Though they are among the older residents of the house they still suffers from all the angst and inner turmoil that plague most teens. On top of all that, they have to face their own mortality with the realisation they will never reach adulthood. The writing deftly taps into that sense of hopelessness, confusion and the aching pain of isolation.
The rest of the characters are just as well observed, all have their different coping mechanisms for dealing with their life sentence. There is Jake, the blustering violent bully, or Eleanor who loses herself in the pages of her precious books and Ashley who has turned to religion in order to try and cope the with situation. My personal favourite though, is a young boy called Will. His journey really struck a chord. The most poignant scene in the entire novel is all about him and a single moment in his life.
There is a deliberate ambiguity surrounding the details of the condition that has resulted in Toby and his fellow inmates finding themselves in the Death House. The symptoms, the cause and history of the disease remain a mystery. The origins of the sickness are alluded to, but never fully revealed. It struck me that the genre elements are so subtle you could be forgiven for missing them. They could probably be completely removed and you would still have a first class piece of fiction
Thematically, I was reminded of two films: Never Let Me Go and How I Live Now. If you enjoyed either, or both, of these movies then, The Death House will most definitely appeal. Both films and the book are intimate portraits of difficult situations and feature casts made exclusively young characters. Like its celluloid counterparts The Death House is a coming of age story. This is about a group of children starting to make the difficult transition to adulthood. It’s the small moments that really make this writing stand out. Pinborough has a delicate touch and she uses this skill to scatter the narrative with insightful scenes. This isn’t just a book about children waiting to face their inevitable end, it is so much more. The simple but engrossing plot takes time to explore and pick apart the harsh realities of institutionalised living. I defy anyone to read this and not feel empathy towards every character that has been consigned to the house.
I love books like this, the sort of fiction that promotes introspection. How would I cope if I found myself in the same situation as Toby? When I was a teen could I have dealt with the immense pressures that he faces? As I recall I considered myself all but indestructible. Facing up to the imminent prospect of death would be an entirely alien concept.
I’ve always considered it the trickiest of skills, trying to capture genuine emotion in fiction, but there are a select few authors who make it look effortless. This beautiful story ends on a pitch-perfect bittersweet note. I’ll happily admit, I felt emotionally drained when I got to the last page. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I reckon that The Death House is right up there with The Language of Dying as one of Sarah Pinborough’s best works. This is a touching tale that will linger long after you’ve finished reading, haunting and heartbreakingly sad.
The Death House is published by Gollancz and available from 26th February. Highly recommended.
As an aside, if you happen to be anywhere near London this evening there is a book launch for this very book at Blackwells Holborn branch starting at 6pm. If you look carefully you may even spot me in the audience, I’ve heard a rumor that there may be cookies.