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Review: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

The Death House

Sarah Pinborough

Toby’s life was perfectly normal… until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test. Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House: an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They’re looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it’s time to take them to the sanatorium. No one returns from the sanatorium. Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes. Because everybody dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts.

“The Death House” by Sarah Pinborough is one of those rare books that straight up makes you weep. Yes, you will cry and you will be heartbroken, and the story will hang around with you for some time, probably a good time to come.

The most unsettling and sad part, the part that struck me the most, wasn’t even the bitter end. It was a particular incident before the end, not even the twist, where a young boy falls ill and suddenly you have these other teens trying to cover for his growing sickness and care for this sickly boy. The thing that made it so highly unsettling and supremely depressing to read was due to the fact that the real adults meant to care for them did nothing to help them. In fact, the adults of this book barely acknowledge the children and don’t try to even remotely console them in any way. Basically, it’s like “Lord of the Flies” meets boarding school, with just the barest amount of adult supervision to make sure things don’t go all out crazy.

It unsettles me because, as I was reading, it struck me how much I wanted to reach in there and hold the kids’ hands, or just read them a book. These children are living in a home deemed the Death House, which should give you a strong hint as to what their eventuality will be. Someone should be there for them! But the only ones there are the other kids, and it just broke my heart. Loss is a lot to deal with as a child, let alone to help a younger kid through their approaching death.

This glum view rattles my heart, because I can’t fathom how this would be allowed and yet, the moment I start to imagine if this was our world, and some plague had nearly wiped us out, and now that said plague was nearly eradicated, save for a few unlucky children, there is a part of me that looks at our current world and thinks, ‘no, that would be something we might just be cruel enough to allow to happen.’ The hope in me fights against such a notion. Yet the history of our humanity isn’t exactly a pretty picture to give me hope that maybe once we wouldn’t treat the outcast so dreadfully.

There is a beauty to “The Death House” as well, the notion of making the best of what you do have and living life to the fullest. This isn’t overly dwelled on; rather Sarah Pinborough makes the very novel about living in the moment, live in the moment. There is love and friendship, the two endearing intangibles that outlast death. Which is what makes the book so devastating and lovely to read of course. This is a young adult book, technically, but it will resonate wholly different with adults.

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