Last year, I read The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough. To say I wasn’t a fan is a bit of an understatement. Despite some beautiful language, the book just didn’t hit the mark with me. Thinking back, a big part of my problem was that it was a short book (a novella) that could have been a short story. The first half flowed, the second stalled and left me slightly bored.
Not long after, I read a review of The Death House on Keeper of Pages and it felt like I was reading the review of a different author. Janel, of said Keeper of Pages, very kindly offered to send me her copy of the book so I could give Pinborough another go. Now that I’m done, I have to say I’m really glad I did because this book – for me – was in a different ball park.
The Death House is a young adult novel, a piece of dystopian fiction where young people with a deformative gene are taken to a remote island and taken care of in what is basically a boarding school….until they die. How they die is different, and some are pretty horrid. None of the young people there are quite sure just what is involved though because, once you get ill, you go to the sanatorium. And you never come back from the sanatorium.
Separated into dorms, the young people are mainly left to their own devices under the steely eye of the Matron. Each dorm has a leader of sorts and in Dorm 4, it’s Toby, who happens to be the oldest so in charge by default. Toby spends his days trying be tough and who can blame him with a death sentence hanging over his head? He spends his nights wandering the halls of the Death House, wondering just how long he has left.
That all changes when a new group of children turn up, including Clara, who doesn’t seem afraid of dying at all and brings energy and life to the house, encouraging the others to start to enjoy the time they have left. It’s a great message, a powerful one, that tells you not to give up and not to give in, despite what life might throw at you. Clara is the perfect foil to Toby, light where he is dark, fun where he is furious. For a young adult novel, it’s probably the perfect relationship dynamic – and as an adult, I have to say I didn’t mind it either.
As they get to know each other, both Clara and Toby change, grow so you can see the adults they might become, and plot to escape the hand life has dealt them. As they plot, the story becomes tenser and darker. I was surprised by how much and how quickly I was drawn into their world. Like The Language of Dying, I can’t fault Sarah Pinborough for her writing – she does have a wonderful way with words and the descriptions of life on the island really brought it to life.
Thankfully, this time, the story kept me interested too. I’m not a huge read of young adult fiction but, when it’s done well, I always seem to enjoy it and I think it was done very well here. As well as the writing, the story was interesting and involving, the pace pretty fast and the length just right (it’s another short book). I liked that it was dark, that it didn’t talk down to the reader, and that it didn’t leave any easy answers. It did have what I was think is a pretty typical ending but that is a minor gripe in what was a thoroughly enjoyable book. A big thanks to Janel for passing it on!
About the book….
Toby’s life was perfectly normal… until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.
Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House: an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They’re looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it’s time to take them to the sanatorium.
No one returns from the sanatorium.
Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.
Because everybody dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts.
Publication date: 26th February, 2015
Number of pages: 288
Rating: 4.5 out of 5