The Death House – fascinating SF for adult and YA readers

The Death House,

Sarah Pinborough,

Gollancz

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I’ve admired Sarah Pinborough’s writing for several years – she’s consistently proven herself to be one of the more fascinating new talents in the UK fantastic genres, and I’ve been especially delighted with the ways in which she crafts stories which you often can’t simply label into one genre or another, as, like a number of other fast-rising (and fascinating) writers such as Lauren Beukes for example, she deftly manages to pull elements from various places, from horror tropes to science fiction or thriller or crime and re-weaves them into something far more compelling. Sarah has also enjoyed success as a Young Adult author, and with her new book, The Death House, she is again dancing around the edges of several genre ballrooms, picking her dancing partners from different rooms at different points; indeed, as well as a delightful weaving of elements from various genres into something new, here she also manages to craft a book which functions perfectly well as an engrossing taleĀ for an adult or for a YA reader.

It’s sometime in the near future, but we don’t know exactly when. Or even where. In fact there’s a quite deliberate lack of solid information in The Death House. We know were are in a future Britain, but we don’t really see it, except in some memories of the children in the house, because our point of view is Toby, a teenage schoolboy, sent to the eponymous house along with other children, because they are “defective”. This future world has some sort of illness – a plague, virus, genetic disorder? We never really know and it doesn’t really matter, because what matters is anyone whose blood test comes up with the wrong result is taken away to one of these isolated homes – there is no appeal, the operation is carried out with clinical, almost Fascist like efficiency and lack of mercy, dark vans swooping on homes, children torn from the arms of their parents. And no-one comes back from a Death House. And no-one outside knows what happens, except it is where the ill kids are taken to await the signs of their symptoms beginning to surface. And even the kids in the house don’t know exactly what this illness is, or even what the symptoms are – different symptoms seem to manifest in different people at different times.

The nursing staff and the token teaching staff in the house (isolated on an island) don’t explain any further, and this just adds to the overbearing atmosphere of fear and despondency. These are youngsters, and they are marked to slowly die, cut off entirely from their previous life, even letters from parents forbidden. It’s just them and the very remote nursing staff who do their best to never treat their young charges as anything other than a job; no emotional bonding or caring here, it’s like an even more hellish version of a boarding school combined with that fear all humans carry of serious illness, the children isolated, physically and emotionally. Toby is the oldest in his dorm and has reluctantly taken on the role of leader for the younger boys in his room, but much of the time he avoids anything that smacks of entanglement, because what’s the point? Today, tomorrow, a month, a year, he is is here till he suddenly develops symptoms (and what symptoms? in the absence of facts, just like every media fulled panic of any new illness there is a Chinese Whispers effect as the kids tell each other about it, although none really know).

His only escape is at night – as the house sleeps Toby pads out quietly to explore, a tiny bit of rebellion and adventure which he has to himself. Until Clara arrives among the latest group, a girl around his age, straight away she attracts attention among the older boys, except for Toby (who had been daydreaming of a girl at school he hoped to get off with at a party just before the black vans came for him). And then he finds Clara too avoids the pills at night and explores the house, during what he considers his time. How dare she! And yes, you just know that his antipathy and his defensive recoiling from any deep attachment just isn’t going to survive against the energy of the life-loving Clara…

And there you go again, Pinborough delighting in mixing genres – we’ve already got a Dystopian science fiction future, a dark, old house right out of a Victorian horror tale, and now we have romance woven into the mix. And more than that, it’s that intense first romance, that type that flares among the confusions of adolescence and burns with an intensity unlike any other you ever experience. And Pinborough charts the development of their friendship then romance wonderfully, the shyness but eagerness, the mixture of fear and desperate hope. And over all this hangs their fate as Defectives, locked away in the house to await their seemingly inevitable fate. One day they will start to manifest symptoms and when they do the impassive nurses will take them away in the middle of the night, while the others sleep, to the upper floor. No-one knows what happens there and nobody returns from that floor. Do they die? Mutate? Are they the subject of experimentation into the Defective? Anyone who’s dealt with serious illness or watched a loved one suffering has felt that numbing horror of feeling totally helpless, and here these kids are living in that state every day.

Again, as I said earlier, Pinborough deliberately holds back on explanations: in some ways it is maddening and frustrating, but I suspect that’s part of the point here – we’re in the same position as Toby and the other kids here. It’s barely mentioned in the outside world and once they are labelled and caught up in the house programme they have no contact at all ever again with the outside world, so they have no access to any information, or any adult who will act as their champion. It’s like being a combination of a child with a terminal illness and being an illegal refugee at the same time, sealed away, forgotten, nobody knows, nobody cares about you or speaks for you or strives for you. Pinborough instead uses this lack of solid information to create Poe-like levels of creeping fear in this old house, and also as a good way of building up the relationships between the kids held inside it, from moments of fear and worry (and attempts by some of them to help and reassure the others) to moments of childlike joy (it suddenly snows, something none of them have ever seen before – it hasn’t snowed in this future UK for a long time, it seems). And as Toby and Clara start to bond on a deep level they start to question their assumed fate in that way only a teen can, that remarkable defiant stance, won’t happen to us, we will survive somehow, escape somehow, live together somehow… Somehow…

The Death House is a masterful piece of writing craft – I think most authors would have felt compelled to add much more exposition and much more explanation in here, more background to this future society, to how it evolved in a way that the state can just take your kids from you and seal them away to die, more details about the illness itself, what it is, what causes it, why does it require such drastically cruel, inhuman treatment to be visited on children? And yes, part of me really wanted to know more about those aspects of this world, but on reflection those are just details, and distracting ones at that. Pinborough, wisely, I think, eschews those partly because it enhances the sense of isolation and dread and fear in the house and among the young patients/prisoners, but also partly because she is more interested in the psychological and emotional effects this has on those kids, and that’s far more satisfying, especially as she is simply so damned good at writing adolescents, from the younger ones to those in that awkward, almost an adult but not there yet late teen period. Hugely compelling and emotional, dark, disturbing, yet also with lighter moments and that slowly emerging first love romance shining through it (as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park, life keeps finding a way, even in a home seemingly only for the lost), with very believable young characters that works for adult and YA reader alike, and as with a lot of writing across the centuries to do with the inevitability of death, this isn’t really about death. It’s about living.