Book Review: Death House by Sarah Pinborough

Isolated in an ancient manor house on an barren comma of rock and scrub in the middle of the ocean, a dwindling student body mooch through unenthusiastic lessons and long nights. Their every move is watched by gimlet eyed nurses and the uncompromising matron, monitoring them for the first betraying symptom of the sickness. When someone does get sick, the student body dwindles by one more.

No one gets better. No one ever leaves. This is the Death House, and everyone knows they are there to die. It just depends on when.

When trying to describe Death House to friends and family, I used the phrase ‘boarding house noir’ (as well as ‘brilliant’ and ‘heart-breaking’). It isn’t a dystopia, not exactly. The disaster – whatever it was, however it played out – happened a long time ago, years, perhaps decades. The children of the Death House are just the left overs, carriers of a defective gene that leaves them susceptible to…something bad. Something that can’t be allowed to escape the island.

It doesn’t really matter, Pinborough’s elegantly understated world-building revolves around the topography and mythology of the Death House. To the children confined there it is the only world that matters, their memories from a life before locked away like a miser’s pearls.  For Toby, a sullen, guttural teenage boy, his life before is an escape, a play-pretend world where he can leave the dusty strictures of the Death House behind and rewind to when he had a future. It is only at night, when everyone else is asleep, that he is willing to claim ownership of his current home. Even that is pretence though, something he is forced to confront when one of the new arrivals forces herself into his solitary kingdom. Forced to acknowledge and interact with her, he is gradually dragged reluctantly out of his protective shell and starts to imagine a new future.

Death House is a slow, elegant Gothic novel, its contemporary dialogue and attitudes laid over the dusty, quiet horror of an MR James or Bronte novel. It is a delightful, devastating book, with Pinborough uncompromisingly stoic in her refusal to take about of the genre’s expected ‘outs’. Instead she follows the concept unflinchingly, from tragedy to tragedy. It made me cry, it made my friend cry. Yet we both refer to it as one of the best books we’ve read this year. There’s nothing easy about it, nothing convenient, but it is starkly beautiful and unbelievably real in its characterisation and emotional impact.

Some of the characters only pass through the scenes briefly, just dangling pigtails or the brief weirdness of twins, but they are all pin-point perfectly imagined, whole beings sketched out in a paragraph or two of text. The children we do spend more time with are almost painfully realised, in all their awkward, angry, jostling teenager or near teenager-hood. Toby among them, all frustration, hormones and anger that had nowhere to go. He wasn’t always likeable, but then who is? He was real enough I could see my cousin in there, stropping his way through the indignities of just being. There is nothing larger than life about Pinborough’s, no fierce Katniss or magical Clary to shoulder through their fate and write something new (which I do, by the way, love in their own books). These characters don’t have anything to fight against after all, their fate written in their genes, so they just…get on with it, until they can’t.

Like I said, it made me cry. It was worth it, though. I am currently putting off a re-read on the grounds that I don’t want to read it and not cry.


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