The Death House by Sarah Pinborough. Gollancz.
Reviewed by Peter Coleborn
I’ve been kicking myself (metaphorically of course) for not reading The Death House until now. It’s been sitting on my shelves waiting patiently for its pages to be turned, its words read.
Sarah Pinborough’s science fiction novel is set in a dystopian future/alternate world (it’s not obvious which and it’s not important), in a house that resembles an approved school on an isolated island somewhere far from civilisation. It’s a place where “Defective” children are housed until they die from the illness triggered by their defective genes, a place where there is only one way out – on a gurney, their existence then wiped away. It’s a bleak scenario and yet, despite the death that awaits the inmates, it is a coming-of-age story that bubbles with the promise of life.
Toby is the de facto head boy of Dorm 4. He whiles away the days in semi-boredom, avoiding the attention of Matron and her staff, living for the nights when he is alone, echoing the location’s isolation. The status quo is shattered when a new bunch of Defectives arrive, including the teenage girl Clara. At first he resents her, that she too has discovered the secret of the vitamin pills; soon, though, he becomes besotted. Together, they plan their escape (from a place that no-one, ever, has escaped from).
Sarah Pinborough readily gives away two of her inspirations for this novel: The Lord of the Flies and the Narnia books (there are hints of others). And yes, the children do form tribes, do develop friendships and hatreds. Unlike Lord of the Flies, however, they know their future; know that there is no ship on the horizon to release them from captivity. She is able to enter the heads of the boys with consummate ease, depicting their concerns expertly – no doubt lessons she learned as a teacher.
Neil Gaiman endorses the hardcover edition; Stephen King the paperback. Who am I to disagree with these two giants of the field? The Death House is a thoroughly engaging read (it’s a cliché but I really found it difficult to put the book down when I had to get on with life). Toby, Clara and the others are real people and if you don’t finish this novel with tears welling up then you are probably a robot. A tremendous book and one I have no hesitation in recommending.
(Originally posted on the Piper at the Gates of Fantasy website, March 2016).