The Death House is part sanatorium and part boarding school for the teenage characters that populate Sarah Pinborough’s novel. Toby is taken there when he contracts a mysterious illness and much like the children already there, he knows he’s been taken there to die. How the children will die, and what will happen to them after, is a mystery.
There are enticing glimpses of a dark world both inside and outside of the Death House. The infected children are snatched from their parents, there’s a suggestion that after their death the children may be experimented on and there’s speculation, or maybe just childhood whispers, about the gruesome symptoms of the illness that they have been plagued with. To the children and teeangers in the Death House death is an inevitability. But it’s how they live, and towards the later stages how they might chose to die, that gives the novel it’s poignancy. Toby rediscovers life seemingly far too late, with the arrival of the new girl Clara. Together they plan to escape the Death House.
The authentic voices of the teen characters and the mere glimpses at the more speculative trappings of the plot, work to create a grounded and bittersweet tale. These teenagers are trapped in something that neither we nor they can possibly understand, and yet despite the death that surrounds them they live as any teenager does. They fight and love and rebel and, most importantly, live.
The authenticity of the teenager’s voices and reactions to a tragic situation creates a heartbreaking novel, but it’s the moments of love that shine through the darkness that work to create a truly wonderful novel.
By Mark Ulrich