THE DEATH HOUSE by SARAH PINBOROUGH
HB, 273 pages, Gollancz
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Toby has been taken to the Death House because he is Defective, his genes damaged in a way that will cause his gradual sickening and early death. Only children are whisked away in vans to the Death House – as one character explains, “if you haven’t got it by eighteen you won’t get it” – where they are watched over by silent, blank-faced nurses and the mysterious, terrifying Matron. At any time they could be taken in the night to the sanitorium on the top floor, and no one ever comes back from the sanitorium.
Toby thinks he has resigned himself to his fate, sleeping the afternoons away and roaming the silent halls of the Death House by himself at night, until the vibrant Clara arrives on the island and he begains to imagine a life beyond those forbidding stone walls.
The Death House is a beautiful book, by turns uplifting and heartbreaking, dealing with both the terror of immenent death, the frail bonds of friendship in the face of great adversity, and the exhilaration and confusion of first love. Set in a future England not very different from our own, there are only hints at what may have passed before, climate change (It hasn’t snowed in this version of England for over a century) and a mysterious plague that, while it has almost passed, has has still left its markers in the blood of boys like Toby. Toby’s very normal life in the before – holidays with his parents, petty rivalries over girls at school, worries about parties and being cool, are swept away with his abduction to the Death House, and it’s only through knowing Clara that he begins to find his former self again, in an isolated cave at the far end of the world.
It’s the kind of book that will leave you thoughtful for a long time after you close the final page. I found myself saddened, yet uplifted at the same time. Worth seeking out if you’re looking for a more serious read.