Sarah Pinborough follows her gleeful adult fairy-tale trilogy with this hugely affecting story of childhood lost that has more in common with her beautifully mournful novella The Language Of Dying.
The Death House is told from the perspective of Toby, a teenager living in an isolated schoolhouse with no hope of ever leaving. He and the other children suffer from a fatal illness that has no cure – all there is to do is wait for their inevitable death. Toby has settled into disaffection and a role as dorm leader, but when the beautiful, spirited Clara arrives, he finds his defences being dismantled.
Pinborough creates the cold, claustrophobic atmosphere of a boarding school, where the authority figures have a vested interest in not caring about their charges. The fate that is looming over each of the children gives their individual struggles potency. Whether it’s establishing yourself as top dog or finding comfort in religion, each child looks for a way to distract themselves from what they know is coming.
Toby makes for a compelling protagonist. He realises that his attempts to remain distant have failed, especially when Clara arrives. Their blossoming relationship is written with wit and warmth as his awkward resolve to not get close to anybody crumbles in the face of someone he can’t help but care for.
The Death House is shocking and gripping, albeit ultimately hopeful and utterly moving, and it’s Pinborough’s finest novel to date.