BOOK REVIEW: The Death House

The future is never how science fiction writers imagine it to be, and therefore every future is valid. Writing a story set in the future, however, doesn’t automatically mean that it is just a science fiction story. Character-driven science-fiction is a rare thing, probably because it crosses boundaries not easily crossed.

When I first read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro I was blown away by how he managed to capture that bleakness of living in the English countryside, almost to the point that it reminded me somewhat of growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Death House reminded me in some respects of part of Ishiguro’s tale. Pinborough sets her story in a boarding school full of kids of different ages. They are known as Defectives. Resulting from a blood-test, they are taken away from their families and indifferently schooled and cared for by faceless and impassive staff. Matron and the nurses look for any signs of sickness in the kids as if they might look for cracks in concrete. Toby is top dog in his dorm but when Clara and Tom arrive, everything changes. Toby is used to exploring his word at night, witnessing the human horrors in the house, but he is no longer alone at night. The reader learns Toby’s fate as he grows from a frightened child to the brink of manhood. Others around him – Ashley, Will, Jake and the other children face their own futures as best they can.

When you start reading The Death House it feels like a book set in the past, as I alluded to. Another book, The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce, springs to mind – full of teenagers fumbling with the world and each other as they grow up in the late1960s/early 1970s. Suddenly, there are nods to the modern world. The internet is mentioned. It now sits a bit odd. The reader learns that this is perhaps some kind of genetic illness. However, all the characters have decidedly white middle-class names. Is this a middle-class disease, only affecting Tobys, Wills, Harrietts, Claras, Julians and Jakes (only one kid is described ethnically)? Soon, we learn that it hasn’t snowed in England for 100 years. Ah, we’re definitely in the future then.

With only hints of dystopian science fiction (threat lingering over the shoulder, isolation, nameless authority, depressing prospects and environmental change to the world), The Death House is really a story about how teenagers find their way in the world and how people live in the face mortality. Pinborough has a brilliant insight into the minds of teenagers, especially how they group together and jostle for dominance as hormones kick in. Her characterisation and dialogue are spot on. Children are cruel, confused, angry and coming to terms with love. The kids in this story are as rounded as any you’ll find in fiction. But this isn’t a YA novel. At no point did I think this was an adult trying to break into the teen market. It is simply brilliantly written and resonant. As a young boy who became a man, I was blown away by the characterisation of The Death House (she admits to sourcing some details for the male characters on social media). The world-building is also pretty smart. Many of the early chapters have flash-back sections where Toby’s story is explained. However, there is so little deliberate exposition that the reader must imagine the world for themselves. She also writes some beautifully emotive and poetic passages – such as the elements involving descriptions of mermaids. Which all sounds either mawkish or terribly worthy. It is neither. It isn’t a difficult read either, despite tackling an almost impossibly difficult subject and presenting us with a heart-breaking conclusion. At no point do you think that Pinborough is trying to write something other than a great story of Toby and Clara and Jake and Will. The book has a powerful and passionate core.

Sarah Pinborough has created an incredible book with The Death House. It stands alone in genre fiction. It is a horror story with no monsters or ghosts. It is a science fiction novel with only a passing nod to science. It is a fantasy with nothing fantastical. It is a fairy tale with no fairy godmother. It’s not about death, it’s about living. Toby, Clara, Will and the others really live (while the nameless adults barely exist). Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances highlighting the power of humanity (as all good science fiction should be). The writer’s deft touch leaves the reader emotional. You might feel like your heart has been stomped on. In modern genre fiction, complex emotions are a rare thing, and therefore we should be thankful for The Death House.

AUTHOR: Sarah Pinborough
PUBLISHER: Gollancz

Rating: 5/5

Reviewer: Ian J Simpson

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