The Death House exists out of time, on a remote island, its skies visited on rare nights by gorgeous northern lights. The Death House is lots of different things to the children who live in it. It is a boarding school, a prison, a hospital, a place of separation from home and family, the house where they are taken to be watched. Sooner or later, the children know, they will exhibit symptoms, they will be unique to them, but they will mean the end. Eventually, every child will fall ill, he or she will be removed from their dormitory and taken to the sanatorium. No-one ever returns from the sanatorium. These children are the Defectives. There’s nothing to do but wait.
Toby was living a perfectly normal teenage life until a school blood test identified him as Defective. Now, living in the Death House, in a dormitory where nobody wants to get close to anybody else but finds that they just can’t help it, Toby comforts the younger children but there is a rage in him. It expresses itself in the competition which all dormitories feel towards the others. Each dorm wants to stay intact, untouched by symptoms, for longer than any of the others. Instead of competing for house points, this is a boarding school where children make wagers on their very lives. But for Toby everything changes when Clara arrives, a girl so full of life that it seems impossible that she should be among them. Nothing will be the same for Toby again.
The Death House is an extraordinarily beautiful tale. It is haunted by tragedy, it’s made exquisite by sadness, but it is also enriched by an energy for life. It is a dystopian nightmare but it is also lit by love and themes of how to live a life in the moment, finding happiness in the most surprising of places. Its themes are big – religion, love, fear, death – but this is a story told deceptively simply. There are so many little moments that stay in the memory, the small signs of warmth and friendship that stir these young hearts, so deprived of their parents. Toby is one of the older children. He gets cross and bitter and rages but the care that he and others take for the smallest is heart wrenching.
The novel is told in the first person and present tense by Toby. This is especially effective for such a deeply harrowing and personal memoir. Much of what Toby experiences is the stuff of nightmares and so he tells a chilling tale but this contrasts vividly with his thoughts of the lovely Clara. He thinks back on his life before the van came for him as the story moves through his whole trauma of trying to deal with this horrific situation. The world beyond the island, though, is left hazy. It feels as if this could be a world recovering from a great disaster, of which these children are the remnants, but this is lost in cloud across the waters from the island.
There is humour here and lightness but there are also scenes of indescribable sadness. It’s been a long time since I cried as much over a book as I did this one. But The Death House is such a beautiful novel, one to be read in just one or two days, so difficult to put down and worth every one of the tears. I love the characters of these boys and girls, every single one of them, whether they are angry, mad, a bully or deeply innocent and sweet. Everything is elusive, so much that goes on is just rumoured or feared like monsters under the bed. The adults are unknowable, like a different species. And through it all we have Toby and Clara searching for hope with the reader right there behind them, every step of the way. This is a novel very much built on mood and atmosphere and constructed from character. This means that it is addictive and seduces the reader almost instantly, making them ready to accept anything that might happen, eager to immerse themselves in it. Its power and appeal are potent.
This is the first novel by Sarah Pinborough that I’ve read. But having experienced the spell of Sarah’s writing, it most certainly won’t be the last.