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The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough
Book Name: The Death House
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Publisher(s): Gollancz
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Horror / Science Fiction
Release Date: February 26, 2015

With a title like The Death House, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was one of those gory shlock horrors written towards the end of the twentieth century. Unusually for this site, it’s not a fantasy novel, either. What it is, though, is something remarkable. Author Sarah Pinborough has set her story in an unspecified future where children are tested for a disease that is never named. If they prove positive, they are shipped north to an island, made to spend the last of their days in what they nickname the Death House, a mix of quarantine and prison.

The narrator and the other characters are all in their teens, so it’s easy to understand why this book appears to have been aimed primarily towards the YA market, and comparisons drawn to the likes of The Hunger Games. Yet, this is no pale imitation; if anything, it transcends generations, a narrative that will mean something to readers of all ages, albeit for different reasons. While delivering a superb story (of which I’m giving nothing away), it has a profound moral message, one that is more comforting than many of the books found in any self-help section.

The beginning, despite the setting, is almost mundane, with the inmates going through the routine of their typical day, then another, each the same as the last. Pinborough uses flashbacks wisely at the end of these early chapters, offering enough intrigue to keep the pages turning. As they do, it becomes an uneasy read; it’s unsettling how well the characters appear to be accepting of their fate, often waiting for others to die, and there’s a growing atmosphere of dread that – thanks to the author’s talent – can often be physically discomforting.

When new additions arrive, the balance is upset and loyalties shift; narrator Toby finds his world turned upside down, and must adapt along with it. It’s here where the story begins in earnest, and the rest of the book devoured as Pinborough puts her characters and readers through the emotional wringer. It’s an occasionally tough journey, and as the end drew closer, I prepared myself for what I expected to happen. Then the rug was pulled from under my feet, a deft twist that, while surprising, fits perfectly within the context of the story. So much so, I didn’t understand how I couldn’t see it coming.

It’s hard to, I suppose, when there are tears in your eyes. I have to admit, I didn’t just cry. I wept. I’ve never read an ending like it and even now, a couple of weeks later, the power of it still resonates.

While it can be said that the house is a microcosm of society, with each of the inmates representing a particular aspect, Pinborough never fails in bringing her characters to vivid life, imbuing each of them with a distinctive voice and personality that makes it impossible not to feel for them. This is especially true of Toby, whose narration can be frighteningly matter-of-fact at first, growing to create the fully-realised emotional impact of the finale.

The Death House is a book you’ll want to spend every waking moment with until you’ve finished it, one that defies categorisation, taking its readers on an emotional journey, and I’m sure multiple readings will add further depth to what is already an outstanding work of literature. We’re lucky to have a writer of such talent who can manipulate our feelings while still respecting them, one who makes a point without preaching. Ultimately, it’s a book about hope, sacrifice and love, how we sometimes have to forget the past to live for the present; despite illness, fear or both, life is worth living for however long we may have.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Bibliotropic says:

    Yeah, this is definitely one I want to read. I hear so much praise for Pinborough’s work but haven’t yet had the chance to read any for myself, and by the sounds of this, it’s probably the one I should start with.

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