The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

I enjoy and admire Sarah Pinborough’s writing and looked forward to reading The Death House. Set at some distance from today, in the stable aftermath of wide-spread disease in which those with defective genes turned into something monstrous – what is never made clear, but it’s implied to be something like a zombie – most of the population are healthy. Most.

Everyone is tested and some, like Toby, are found to have the defective gene that leads them to the Death House. As all those above 18 are safe, all the tested are young. They are taken from their families and locked up in a kind of boarding school in which nurses, particularly Matron, watch for any sign of sickness.

Toby is the novel’s protagonist. As one of the older boys, he has taken charge of Dorm 4. He does his best not to engage with others, not to form bonds, but just to pass the time until he’s taken to the sanatorium. He sleeps in the day and wanders the house alone at night, having refused to take his ‘vitamin’.

Then new inmates arrive and everything changes. Clara, both beautiful and rebellious, brings a new spirit to the house. Toby is forced to question his disdain, his distance and his night-time domain.

I raced through the book waiting to discover more about the disease, more about its role in society, whether even it was a disease at all or just a method of population control and, whilst I enjoyed all of these uncertainties and found them compelling, the book ended before I’d really had my fill. I wanted the ideas to have deeper foundations. I wanted the novel to stretch beyond the children’s sphere, using confrontations, overheard adult conversations, or evidential discoveries to lend greater insights into the wider world of the novel. But this didn’t happen in quite the way I wanted and left the novel feeling that more could have been invested in it.

I think readers who like exploring human nature in isolation and under the pressure of immanent death will still enjoy the book – the writing is as fluid as ever – but I feel Sarah Pinborough could have pushed these ideas further. The Language of Dying, which if you haven’t read you should, remains my favourite of her books as it isn’t afraid to stretch out beyond the confines of the novel’s setting. I’m sure some might say that The Death House would be a great novel for young adults, but my reservations would remain. Children and adults are all deserving of fully realised ideas and even though The Death House is a fun and thought provoking read, I think it could have been more.

Next week: I’m reading The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher; I’m very excited to be hosting a guest blog by Melissa Bailey; and my new venture, Authors QH, launches today with the wonderful Heidi James. Watch out for another blog post later this morning.