If there is a book which demonstrates how redundant genre classifications can be, it is The Death House. It has elements of several genres and is set in the future. However, at its most essential it is a story about how Toby, and a group of children of various ages, respond to being taken away from their homes in a van to an institution. This happens because they have something in their blood tests which makes them ‘defective’, and which means that sooner or later they will get sick and die. It is a novel about the various emotions that the children experience, and how they cope with the situation they find themselves in. And this is what makes the book delightful: it shows, beautifully, how differently each of them responds to the same situation. Toby is an emotional and sensitive boy, also proud and scared and angry. When Clara arrives, the bond they develop, and her response to her prognosis, have a profound effect on him. Their situation – and that of all the children in the Death House – is extremely sad but the comfort that Clara and Toby find in each other is very moving. There are other touching loyalties (which I don’t want to spoil for you).
There were so many ways in which the author could have taken this story. What I admire about Sarah Pinborough – and I’ve seen it with some of her other books – is that she is clear about what she wants to write about and how she wants to do it. She is prepared to take risks and this takes courage. It also requires an understanding of what makes a good story.
I enjoyed the scenes in the dorms with the boys bantering and jockeying for position. Toby’s fellow ‘inmates’ are characterised well, distinct and real. I loved how Clara arrives on the scene and shakes everything up, apparently confident but with her own vulnerabilities. While they wait for their symptoms to develop, and for the lift to come in the middle of the night to take them to the sanatorium, the emotions of the children are continually changing. This goes for their friendships and the group dynamics. If any one of the children exemplifies the words of the strapline, ‘Everyone dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts’, it is Clara. But it could equally well apply to any of the inmates, as this is the dilemma they are faced with having received their prognoses. Perhaps it applies to the reader as well. If life is so impermanent, how are we to live our lives?
I was desperate to know how the story ends. As with most good stories, there were many possibilities and I wasn’t disappointed. Against the backdrop of disease and dystopia, the innocence and optimism of the feelings between Toby and Clara are a real delight. Highly recommended.
Vicky Newham © 2015