The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

March 5, 2018 - 8:01 pm No Comments

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough. Gollancz, London, UK. £7.99 paperback. 273 pages. ISBN: 978-1-473-22284-7
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan.

Science Fiction is one of the genres that can, in some circumstances, be the literature of the dire warning, the story that says that if we continue the way we are going, disaster will strike. With Trevor Hoyle’s The Last Gasp the mechanism is spelled out and warning unheeded, disaster ensues. Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant trilogy beginning with Forty Signs of Rain featured a climate disaster that governments tried hard to overcome but in some literary novels, the tale deals only with the aftermath. In both Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Jim Crace’s The Pest House the source of the disaster is never known. Characters have to deal with what is. Sarah Pinborough’s The Death House falls into this last group though civilisation has not degenerated in the same way.
Something has happened to the genetic make-up of some humans which scares governments enough that they test children at six month intervals. Anyone who tests positive is taken away immediately – not even a chance for a goodbye. This only happens to children. Toby is one of the unfortunates and finds himself deposited on a remote island, probably off Scotland. Here they go through a parody of being in a boarding school until they get sick. Then they disappear into the upper floors of the building and are never seen again. Everyone assumes they die. ‘Vitamin pills’ are given out each evening but Toby doesn’t swallow his and as a consequence is the only child resident awake at night. That is, until Clara arrives.
This is a potent Young Adult novel. The focus is concentrated on the young people – adults are very peripheral to their new lives. All of them are expecting to die and we see them coping in different ways. Ashley turns to religion and starts a small church in one of the empty rooms bringing consolation to a few as their room-mates sicken. Jake is initially a bully subconsciously hoping that force will stave off the inevitable. Toby has acted as older brother to the younger ones in his dormitory, seeking solitude in his night-time wanderings. When Clara and joins him at night he is more daring, escaping onto the island with walks to the beach with her. Both agree that there are too many things they want to do. Sex is one of them. As they are attracted to each other, the relationship develops and even though both of them know there is no future for them, they plan to escape.
Despite the apparent structure – meals, lessons, sleep – the children are left largely to their own devices and Pinborough develops the dynamics of this group well. She doesn’t discuss the things the characters know, and none of them are interested in politics. We do know that the setting is at least a century in the future as the day it snows Toby comments that it hasn’t done so in London for at least a hundred years, indication that global warming has continued. We never know what disaster has caused this genetic issue or what exactly happens when they get sick. It doesn’t seem to be contagious so the real reason for the isolation is undivulged. It doesn’t matter as the strengths of this novel lie in the relationships between the youngsters and particularly between Toby and Clara. This is an excellent example of what Young Adult fiction is, and should be.
A good read for all ages.

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