It’s only when we’re back in the house and have crept upstairs that she turns and looks at me for a long moment. ‘That was so special,’ she says. ‘Wasn’t it?’
I nod. I’m not good at talking about stuff like this, but I know what she means.
‘Everything’s so special. We should remember that.’
For decades, humans have tested their young routinely for a “defective” gene. Those who test positive are whisked away by the government, taken to remote locations, never to be heard from again. They are a small group, these defect children—some are discovered with the gene when they are 10 years old, others when they are 17. Toby, The Death House’s protagonist, is one of the unlucky boys on the older end of the spectrum. He’s blithely unaware that anything is wrong, normal and carefree and the class joker, obsessed with his crush on classmate Julie (an older girl in school), when he’s taken away.
Toby’s new home is the house—the death house, as the children think of it. Presided over by a calm, professional Matron, disengaged teachers and nurses, the house is a quiet, sleepy place on an island far away from the real world. Toby’s new life is one of routine: he eats, he goes to his classes, he sleeps. He watches over the boys in his wing, Dorm 4, and generally tries to keep other people at a distance. At night, when the nurses give all of the children “vitamins” before bed, Toby secretly refuses to take them and instead roams the house grounds alone in the dark. So Toby’s routine—his quiet existence waiting to inevitably get sick, waiting to be taken away to the sanitorium (from whence no children return)—goes.
Until Clara arrives at the house.
Clara, a vibrant, joyful teenage girl, enters the mostly male house as another defective and changes everything. Everyone, it seems, has a crush on Clara; everyone starts caring and acting differently. Toby is mostly intent on ignoring her and staying out of her way, except that Clara also discovers the trick of the “vitamins” and she, too, roams the grounds at night.
Together, Clara and Toby discover the beauty and hope of the death house. Together, at night, they dream and hope for a future that isn’t sickness and grief.
Sarah Pinborough’s The Death House has oft been compared to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and William Goulding’s The Lord of the Flies (the latter actually is an assigned book to the children of the house)—which is both accurate, and also unfair. Accurate, because The Death House shares the same type of “something isn’t quite right here” narrative as Ishiguro’s SFF novel and the brutal hierarchies that boys impose upon themselves as seen in The Lord of the Flies. Unfair, because it’s hard to compare any novel to these two literary speculative fiction masterpieces—of course The Death House falls short of these bastions of literature, lacking the grace and the claustrophobic narrative of Ishiguro’s prose, as well as the significance, symbolism, and insight of The Lord of the Flies.
What The Death House offers is a restrained look at death from the perspective of a teenager—in this way, it’s actually much more John Green, with its romantic heart and its frustration and angst and anger at the world—with light SFF overtones, and obvious, even spoken, allusions to other works in this literary canon.
What you don’t really know about The Death House, from its U.K. cover or from the book’s synopsis, is that it actually is a doomed romance—it’s about a boy, who meets a girl, and they both are dying, and they both learn to love and burn for each other in the face of inevitable doom. Precious little is known about the illness, the “defectiveness” itself, just that it makes your eyes bleed (maybe), and it makes you gaunt and disrupts your motor functions, and it comes for them all at some point. I actually love the restraint that Pinborough shows with detailing the illness, alluding to it only through the horror movies and books the students are given (my theory: defectives turn into zombies).
The true heart of this book is its hopeful romantic core, the moments of brilliance that Clara and Toby find when they sneak out at night and dare to dream of mermaids, of escape from their island, of a life on the beach until they are taken by the illness they both share. The other relationships in this book, between the boys in Toby’s dorm—Will, the youngest, who still yearns to play Narnia; Louis, a genius but with little actual practical skill; Ashley, who turns (predictably, because someone has to in these books) to religion for his own peace—are fragile, hopeful things, too, that Pinborough nurtures gently before whisking it all away.
Because that’s what The Death House does, ultimately. It’s a slim, elegiac tale of a boy who meets a girl, who falls in love, and who lives, finally, for the time that he can before it is whisked away with the cold, briny tide.
Recommended, for those who want a dash of The Girl with All the Gifts with their The Fault in Our Stars.
In Book Smugglerish: 7 stolen kisses out of 10.