Christopher Evans called science fiction "a literature of 'what if?'”, and by this definition The Death House is Sarah Pinborough’s first science fiction novel. Following a history of well-received fantasy and crime novels and novellas, this work is clearly the most science fictional of her wide-ranging oeuvre, with a clear near-future setting and allusions to the effects of the mysterious illness on which the novel centres.
Toby is a Defective, one of a rare few children whose lives have been betrayed by a blood test. In a near-future Britain, they are bundled into a van and taken to a remote island to live out the rest of their days in the Death House—a mansion physically and culturally separate from society, until they eventually succumb. The symptoms of being Defective vary, but one thing is for sure: when someone is taken ill, and whisked away to the Sanatorium on the top floor, they never come back.
What is particularly impressive about The Death House as a science fiction novel, however, is that while the "what if" is the foundation of the story—the titular Death House gives rise to much, if not all, of the action—the novel’s heart is in its characters. At the heart of the Death House is the jostling of teenagers for power and status, displaced as it is to a strange mansion on an isolated island somewhere in far-flung Britain. On arrival, students are separated into dorms. Toby is in Dorm 4. His great rival, Jake, is in Dorm 7. They are de facto leaders, and they look after their respective tribes ferociously. By the time the novel starts, only Dorms 4 and 7 have yet to suffer the casualty of losing a Defective. However when 7’s Ellory falls ill and is taken to the Sanatorium, swiftly followed by twin brother Joe, the power in the mansion swings toward Dorm 4 and Toby. Comparisons with Never Let Me Go are easy to make, and deserved in both style and substance. Pinborough’s mysterious Death House has a similar and effective system to that found at Ishiguro’s Hailsham, and is a fully believable world, albeit a self-contained one.
Indeed, the arrival of another Defective, Clara, in an unmarked van one night changes everything. Toby has been beset by his memories and a wariness about the shifting politics of the Death House, but he at least has it all figured out. He is king of his dorm, and thus top dog in the whole House. He alone doesn’t take the "vitamins"—actually sleeping pills—that the nurses give out before bed, and he uses these precious hours when the others are asleep to explore and come to terms with his new existence. The night of Clara’s arrival, however, he finds her awake too. They share a world the other children don’t see—theorising about the island, falling in love, and making plans for escape.
Pinborough’s insight into the teenage mind-set is second to none. Her depictions of Toby’s fumbling crushes in the years before he was sent to the Death House are cringe-worthy in their selfishness and self-delusion, and yet immediately relatable. Who didn’t have that unrelenting crush as a horny fourteen-year-old, the one who sent you spinning sideways with a look? Equally, Toby’s budding relationship with Clara is described beautifully. Clumsy, halting, full of mistakes, and yet perfect in its own way, it is teenage love magnified by imminent, inescapable death. When Clara and Toby first have sex I had painfully clear recollections of my own first time—that heady mix of terrible-terrifying-unbelievable-excitable-wonderful, the oh-so-shit and yet oh-so-amazing event that sex is that first time it happens. The first time the couple are sexual, “She’s not even Clara any more, not in my head. She is and she isn’t. She’s the Clara who is my friend but also some strange, mysterious creature filled with a terrible power” (p. 110). The first time they “do it”: “We’re now people who’ve ‘done it.’ It feels weird. Not life-changing weird like I thought it would, but as if I’m more grown up. We’re not kids any more. We’ve transformed. Us but not us” (p. 169). Pinborough sourced some of her writings on teenage male sexuality from social media, and clearly has the wherewithal to realise that it’s probably not that different from the sexual awakening of women—the result is the most believable relationship I’ve read in a long, long time, let alone the best depiction of first love.
The transformative theme underlies the novel’s major relationships, not just between Clara and Toby, but between the children and their fate and the house in which they are forced to face it. Mortality is a certainty here, and the escape from it forces a transformation. Fear is constant. They don’t talk of the changes, of the Sanatorium. The novel opens with a powerful line spoken by Will, youngest member of Dorm 4, not yet accustomed to the rules of not talking of the children’s Defective nature: “They say it makes your eyes bleed” (p. 1). Who are they? Is this idle gossip, or somehow a fact gleaned by osmosis of the effects of the Defective gene in the children?
Since Henry, the first to get sick, lost control and wept for his mother, humiliating himself, the children are protective of themselves, defensive and tribal. Their only dignity is in facing death on their own terms. Already, the pious Ashley seeks God more and, more, seeks to transform others to his ways. Young, naive Will and genius Louie cling to one another, disparate personalities desperate to stem the tide, reading The Chronicles of Narnia over and over to escape. The bully, Jake, seeks to reinforce his hold on Dorm 7 by fighting Toby over Clara. Toby and Clara themselves wish to be mermaids, finding a cave on their nightly sojourns while the others sleep their drug-induced sleep, and watching the Northern lights play out above the sea. They fantasise about a life away from the Death House, away from their Defective genes, a life where they can be happy. “You look like a mermaid,” says Toby of Clara. ”A mermaid who comes ashore at night and sits in this cave wondering what it would be like to be human” (p.76). These are children, Pinborough is reminding us: children who have been told they have a death sentence. Escapism is the only form of therapy for them—and perhaps for the reader too. Pinborough, after all, has a reputation for writing fantasy as a sort of escape from, or salve for, the pains of the modern world. Her resplendent The Language of Dying uses the recurring fantasy of a unicorn to come to terms with grief, while her reworkings of fairy tales in Charm, Beauty, and Poison offer an insight into how modern society can reuse the parables those fairy tales tell. The Death House allows the reader an escape, and advises that this escapism is necessary in our own worlds, which are no less prescribed than that of the Death House, if less immediately terminal.
Every character is given some similar realisation - and, inevitably, here therefore be spoilers. Soft-hearted Will, Louie, who despite his intelligence lacks common sense, and the picked-on Ashley—all live their own, fully realised, lives. Their interactions take us outside of Toby’s world, despite the plot being focussed on him. Toward the end of the book, Will’s Defective gene activates. It is obvious to all who see him that he hasn’t long left: one day he is happy and playing like the young kid he is, the next he is shivering and visibly ill. Toby and Clara hatch a plan. They tell him not to take his vitamins that night, keep him awake with them, take him to their sea-cave. They watch the Northern Lights together, feel human again. “This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Will says in the cave, “Like we’re in Narnia or something.” Clara’s simple response reinforces this: “Mermaids are real. Magic is real. Maybe even Narnia is real” (p. 219).
While this isn’t the case, the children need it to be so. When Will dies that evening, killed by an overdose of sleeping pills which Toby has secreted in his hot chocolate, Clara and Toby feel they’ve done the right thing. In any other book, their sacrifice—their own happiness lost to guilt, in exchange for a merciful death for their friend—would be lauded. Here, however, we are again and instantly taken outside of Toby’s world, to the sadness of Louie. Louie is Will’s best friend. He taught Will chess. When the chessboard was broken, they cobbled together a new one. They were always together. “I had to go to the stupid church to say goodbye and now that’s ruined, too. I was his best friend, Toby. Not you. Not Clara. Me” (p. 234). The hurt, the pain, this reminder that the book is about Toby, but not the world, is the mark of a master storyteller.
The Death House is not without its faults, however. At the start of this review, I found myself trying to place The Death House as a science fiction novel by referring to Evans’s "what if", merely for want of a genre taxonomy. The novel is set in the future, or at least a possible future: it is therefore science fiction. But by setting itself in that future, The Death House makes it hard for me to believe in it. At one point in the novel, the children are happy: forgetting, briefly, why they are inmates of the House, the crushing finality of their lives. They play in a snowfall, a weather event which Britain hasn’t seen in 100 years. This gives us a time-frame—around a century into the future. And yet, there are no distinct technological changes in the flashbacks. The Internet is the Internet, mobile phones are mobile phones. The Defective gene is just there—there is mention of some cataclysmic event, but no more. I’m fine—in fact more than fine—with the lack of explanation for the Defectives, but I struggled with the time frame and lack of technology. The "what if" element needed, to my mind, to be expanded slightly.
The Death House’s speculative world is slight, but, whatever its virtues, within the characters’ world Pinborough layers a beautiful account of that first, maddening, youthful love, alongside the friendship and brotherhood only found in those doomed to die together. It’s poignant and tear-jerking: the ending is stunning, and I haven’t cried this much at a book in a long time. There are adults in this novel, but they are silhouettes against the children’s technicolour. The story is told through the eyes of Toby—it is Toby’s view that matters, and it is his brother and sister Defectives that truly matter, that he loves, each in their own way. It is a book about young adults that a young adult could read, but isn’t necessarily for young adults. It’s Pinborough’s best so far, masterful in its characterisation, beautiful in its execution. But, most importantly, it is a book about humanity: what it is to face death, to face fear, to face love, and get to the other side.
Maximillian Edwards is a Londoner who works in publishing. A former editor of the British Fantasy Society Journal, his short fiction has appeared in Holdfast Magazine and he blogs at onechaptermore.com.