Title: The Death House
By Sarah Pinborough
GOLLANCZ FICTION 288pp
The title of this dystopian fiction novel truly sets the tone. ‘The Death House’ is set in a time era that is not specified, but in this era children up until the age of eighteen are vulnerable and tested for an unnamed fatal illness. If tested positive for this disease, the children are shipped away from their families to an isolated location. This location is known as ‘The Death House’.
The narrative follows the protagonist, Toby, who tests positive for the disease. The novel then follows Toby and his journey with death, as he loses friends to it whilst also waiting to be claimed by it. Through this journey we see Toby grow as a person, as he reclaims his humanity in an environment that had stripped it away from him. He builds friendships and finds love, however, you cannot relax and get comfortable, as death continuously claims her victims.
I found myself feeling rather conflicted with the ending of ‘The Death House’. The conclusion of this novel has a Titanic/ Romeo and Juliette feel to it, and I cannot decide if it is in a good way. I take that back, I am almost certain it is not. The conclusion of a novel has the power to make or break it. Whilst the tone to ‘The Death House’ had been bleak throughout its duration, I do not feel that the dark ending strengthened this tone. If anything, I think it took away from it. Sarah Pinborough places the reader inside a house full of young lives that are ‘defective’. Kids start to exhibit flu-like symptoms, and over the course of the night, they disappear. Despite this, Pinborough manages to add feelings of hope and purpose, which is no easy feat. I find it unfortunate that Pinborough invested her time and effort into creating these feelings of hope, to then so carelessly take it away in the name of shock factor.
When I think of ‘The Death House’, the thoughts that come to mind are not those of the truly well-crafted characters and conversations. Or the pages that I hastily turned, to delve further into Toby’s psyche. To watch him converse, grow, bond and love. To witness and feel his struggle with remembering his youth, character and joy in a cool house surrounded by death. I do not think of the emotions the book caused me to feel. The curiosity, anxiety, sorrow, joy, fear, admiration. But rather, when I think of ‘The Death House’ I think of those final few chapters. I think of the anger, disappointment and confusion they made me feel.
The positive thoughts and memories of ‘The Death House’, are ones I have to search for, as they are smothered by the thoughts and feelings of Chapter 24, the final chapter. I do not know whether Sarah Pinborough’s intentions were to make the book memorable, but if this was her overall aim, I am afraid that she failed. I do not remember the book, ‘The Death House,’ I remember the final few pages.
Despite my opinion of the final chapter of the book, I must give credit where credit is due. The pages proceeding the conclusion were truly absorbing and emotion provoking. Seeing children forced into such a foreign, sterile and bleak situation, somehow managed to result in some beautiful writing. I feel it is the contrast of a child, which is usually a bright, vibrant, energetic and hopeful thing, facing off against the ultimate darkness, which is death, loss and hopelessness, which really makes this book. You witness the two forces coming to terms with each other and seeing which one prevails.
I feel that despite the ending, ‘The Death House’ is still a book worth reading. ‘The Death House’ is certainly not a casual read, it is an emotional investment, one that may warrant a box of tissues.