Toby is one of a group of young people who have been sent to The Death House because blood tests have identified them as being Defective. They are watched over by a team of nurses headed the disturbingly efficient Matron, looking for the signs of sickness that will lead to removal to the Sanitorium from where no-one ever returns. Toby is doing what he can to cope, mostly withdrawing from everyone else, but then some new youngsters arrive, and one in particular changes everything.
Why did I want to read it?
I really like Sarah Pinborough’s work and look out for anything new that she publishes. I have a little virtual stack of her eBooks (if such a thing can be said to exist) and really enjoyed her Jack the Ripper inspired (terrible shorthand but you know what I mean) novels Mayhem and Murder (reviewed here and here).
Also (full disclosure) she personally handed me an uncorrected bound proof of the novel at a book event a few weeks ago in this lovely packaging, and now that I’ve read it I’m going to carefully wrap it up again as I have already pre-ordered for my Kindle app and will get it on publication day (26 February – go and buy it!)
But enough of that because I suspect you want an answer to this question:
What did I think of it?
I normally try not to write blog posts immediately after reading a book because I like to let things percolate and settle before I try to articulate what I thought, but I knew I was going to have to write about The Death House soon because it was just so extraordinary and had such an impact that I didn’t want to forget how it made me feel.
And boy were there feelings.
So. To me this is a book about love and life and grief and coping and doing the best you can under awful circumstances. It’s about having to grow up too quickly. It’s about fear and dread and getting through the day. And ultimately it’s about love and connections and friendship.
All of the youngsters are distinct individuals and totally believable but of course Toby and Clara in particular stand out, though I loved Louis and Will as well. The adults are not so well drawn but that’s deliberate and make sense as under the circumstances I would think they would be very wary of giving anything away to their charges (and when that does occasionally happen there are consequences) and so we see them as the children see them.
One of the strengths of the novel for me was that not everything was spelled out. We aren’t told what the condition the children have actually is, though we know it’s been around for a long time, only strikes the young and presents itself in different ways with each individual. We don’t know where the Death House actually is, except that it’s clearly isolated, and most importantly we don’t know what happens in the Sanitorium (except that no-one comes back). I thought this was all very effective because it’s the relationships that matter.
I had started to read the book soon after I was given it but realised that this was something that I wanted to take care with, so I stopped for a bit because life and work were clearly going to get in the way, and when I sat down to read it I finished it in a single sitting. It’s totally compelling and then it kicks you in the stomach with an event that is so sad that I couldn’t stop myself from crying (luckily I was at home and didn’t repeat the embarrassing experience of reading the end of The Time Traveller’s Wife on a bus and having to stop because I was making a fool of myself) and when I sort of recovered I went through it all over again with what I think was a perfect ending to the novel. It reminded me a little of Never Let Me Go (but only a little, it is very much its Own Thing).
I really do urge you to read this. It’s just wonderful. I will be reading it again soon, but envy anyone who is coming to it for the first time.