Map of Blue Book Balloon

29 March 2015

Review: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

The Death House
Sarah Pinborough
Gollancz, 2015
Hardback, 273pp

I bought this book from Goldsboro Books in London

In a near future world, perhaps 100 years from now, children are testing and those who fail are taken from their parents, brought to a remote house and kept there. One by one, they fall ill and disappear, always at night. They're attended by "nurses" and "teachers" but we never learn the names of these adults: they're distant, uninvolved, cold.

The survivors wait their turn for the trolley in the night...

Against this bleak background, Sarah Pinborough has created a story of love, humanity and hope. We follow Toby, seized from his family just as he was about to go to a party with the girl of his dreams. At the Death House he has frozen, afraid to care for anyone or anything. Until new girl Clara arrives.

If that sounds like the lead up to a rather hackneyed teen romance, it really isn't. Pinborough shows us her characters with great skill and gives them real depth: the keynote is struck, perhaps, when, early on, we see the kids are studying "Lord of the Flies" I've always regarded this book as depressing and pessimistic, as Golding makes his plane-wrecked schoolboys bear the weight of the world's evil, falling into superstition and terror. That would be the easy path here, perhaps, but Pinborough doesn't take it. She shows, first, how fear and loss have paralysed the "Defective" kids, bearers of the "Defective" gene - but then, how they cope, in their different ways. None are perfect - there are bullies, there is shunning of those coming down with... whatever it is...

But there is also humanity, there is heart, and at the centre of the story, there is Toby and Clara's unexpected love. Details of the "Defective" ones are patchy - they are described at one point as a remnant of the past, a past that nearly destroyed the world: they are certainly feared and perhaps hated - but that is secondary to the situation they're in. What is made clear is that their lives will be cut short, their future is a blank, and they have been left to face this alone with no love, no care, no support. To me, the doomed children suggested not a vaguely SF future one might expect 100 years in the future but the world of 100 years ago where many of their forebears would also have faced death and tried to keep alive life and hope despite the odds.

It's a difficult read in place, the implacable logic of the story driving forward when you would rather it halted, giving a respite, a delay, but always involving, compassionate and true.

Oh, and the writing is, in places, sublime as well. For example

"...the night is like a black sea and I creep up the stairs through it, treading carefully to avoid waking the wood and making it creak with surprise at my weight."


"Daniel may not be destined to grow up, but he's already the shadow of the man he would have become."

I've read Sarah Pinborough before as a horror writer and as a wicked reteller of fairy tales, and her Victorian murder mysteries are chillingly readable but this is something different yet again. Simply brilliant.

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