From its title alone, you know that Sarah Pinborough’s The Death House (Titan Books) isn’t going to be a fuzzy bunny story. Set in a future Orwellian England that has once been ravaged by an undefined plague, the YA novel is placed on an isolated island estate where children and teens who have shown signs of possible “Defectiveness” have all been quarantined. Monitored by a menacing Matron and a team of nurses, indifferently schooled by a cadre of faceless teachers, the children in the Death House follow a tedious routine until they begin to show symptoms of succumbing to their mysterious illness. Then they are sent upstairs to the sanatorium, from where none of them return.
We’re introduced to this grim setting via Toby, a young boy who is the eldest in Dorm 4. Toby has been surviving in the House by actively distancing himself from the rest of his housemates. Despite his attempts at emotionally shielding himself, he still feels a connection to most of the other boys in his dorm (the one exception being a hyper-religious zealot named Ashley), but he doesn’t fully open up until a new arrival named Clara is brought to the facility. Clara’s arrival, not unexpectedly, piques the interests of many of the young boys, but it’s Toby who ultimately lets down his guard enough to make a connection. The two take to sneaking out at night, exploring the island, dreaming and ultimately hoping to escape. Our young lovers even share a romantic moment reminiscent of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, and, yes, that’s a sign of where the story’s heading.
Telling her tale through Toby’s first person voice (with occasional third person flashbacks to his days before the fatal blood test that got him ripped from his family), Pinborough sharply captures her young protagonists and their soul-grinding world. Though the book makes repeated references to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (an assignment given to Toby and his peers by their teachers), I found myself flashing back to work by the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn with his day-to-day accounts of life in the Russian gulags. Heavy stuff to be sure, and though the book is a quick read, it is not a light one.
Pinborough paces her story deliberately, charting her boy hero’s emotional awakening with care. As a result, the first half of the book can at times feel almost as oppressive as its setting. But once Toby and Clara bond, the novel begins to move quickly toward its devastating conclusion. In the end, Pinborough’s The Death House provides a compelling celebration of hope in the direst of worlds. Heartily recommended.