The Death House - Sarah Pinborough

Genre: YA
Synopsis: 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 Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear.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.


Review: I want so badly to give this book five stars, but the ending left me a little dissatisfied. Everything else, however, was brilliant.

The biggest critique I have seen of this book is actually one of my favourite elements - it is utterly character-driven. I hesitate to call it a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel, because while elements of both genres are hinted at, they are utterly subverted by the character interaction and development. This seems to have a left a bad taste in the mouths of many reviewers used to detailed world-building and big reveals. Honestly, I think the way Pinborough conveys this house as the last refuge for the sickness of a recovering world, without ever explaining anything in detail, is ample demonstration of real skill as a writer. The earth seems to have heated up, people seem to have been afflicted by something will dominate their systems by age 18, and rare though those people are in the wake of the world's healing, they must be gathered together and ultimately destroyed for that healing to complete. Why this is not enough explanation, in the face of so much else that is beautifully written, I don't understand. There is no horror here, other than the horror of misfortune and fate. The fact that these kids are not oppressed by a big evil that they must attempt to overcome, the fact that it is just luck of the genetic draw that has brought them here to die, makes their hopeless situation all the more powerful to read about.

The characters. The complex, microcosmic society that has developed in the Death House, between individuals, between dorm groups. The push and pull of attempted survival in the context of guaranteed impending death. The ostracization of the sick. All of these things are impressed upon us with a stunning credibilty throughout this book. Told from the perspective of Toby, an angry teenager whose way of dealing with his inevitable fate is to withdraw into himself and try not to care about anything. Not necessarily likeable, but understandable. Over the course of the story, however, his hostility is challenged by the intervention of a girl. As she slowly softens his manner towards her, Pinborough impressively illustrates how he learns to live for the moment, and relate to the other characters around him - little Will, only 10 years old and gentle. Louis, a little older, a little braver, a lot wiser. Ashley, who injects a fantastic shot of religious contemplation and discussion of life after death into the story. Jake, the alpha male against whose bravado Toby comes up on more than one occasion. Little Georgie, a symbol of hope and inevitability. The overall picture, comprised of these characters trying to get by in a situation governed by tragic circumstance, is skillfully portrayed.

As I said, my one qualm with this near-perfect read is the ending. It was about five pages from perfect and it sucked some of the preceeding credibility out of Toby for me. It was written beautifully, I just didn't quite buy it. Still, it didn't spoil the book for me at ALL; there is still so much to love about it. Dark and bleak, including one particular scene towards the end that actually caught me entirely by surprise (I'm far too innocent) which will haunt me for quite some time. But also, full of hope, and the freedom in choosing not to let death silently cart you away in the night, in reclaiming the right to live your life to the fullest - however numbered the days. Highly recommended read.

Rating: 5/5


Dan said...

I think that is a common problem with a lot of books rather than focus on the background and core of the story it can be too character based. Don't get me wrong character is important but I like to know the history of the story somI can out myself in the shoes of the character from their past.

Nollaig said...

That's a fair point, and I understand that view. I've always quite enjoyed books whose characters are developed and interesting enough to outweigh the necessity for background development, which I felt this one did. :)