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Onyx reviews: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 03/07/2015

It's not a coincidence that the text assigned to reading comprehension "students" living in the Death House is The Lord of the Flies, for Sarah Pinborough's latest novel is, in part, an homage to that classic work. 

There are substantial differences, though. While the residents of this isolated boarding school on steroids are mostly male, there are enough females around to make things interesting, and volatile. The children were stranded on this island on purpose, brought here in the vans that were used to steal them away from their ordinary lives, without even a moment for a formal goodbye to their loved ones. There are adults in the picture, including the sinister Matron who runs things, but they are mostly aloof and distant, the kind who make wonking sounds in Charlie Brown cartoons. 

The story is set at some indeterminate point in the future when no one living has a memory of snow falling in England, although board games, movies and photocopiers still exist. Reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, those condemned to live out their final days at the Death House are possessors of a gene that brands them as defective, a word usually rendered with a capital D. 

Those who have the gene, which is only detected in people under the age of eighteen, have heard rumors about what will happen once the disease expresses itself. They might become something horrific, like zombies or vampires, but the overseers of the Death House never allow their young charges to witness the outcome. At the first signs of symptoms, the ill are spirited away in the middle of the night, taken to a sanatorium where they are either tended to until death or put out of their misery. No one knows which. All evidence of their existence is expunged from the dormitories and they are rarely, if ever, mentioned again. 

The children are expected to adhere to a normal daily structure. They have chores, and attend classes, even though they will never have any use for their acquired knowledge. They have recreation areas with everything they might desire available to them, but they can't leave and there are never any visitors. There are grim, discouraging rumors about the terrible fate that would befall anyone attempting to escape the island.

Strong personalities prevail. Everyone treats the bully Jake with kid gloves and the respect afforded to someone who has a reform school past. And, as in The Lord of the Flies, factions develop. The main distinction is in where someone lives. There's a kind of morbid rivalry among the dorms. Toby, the book's first-person narrator, lives in and rules over Dorm 4, which at present has a perfect record. No one from their cadre has ever taken sick. There's also a religious faction, led by a boy named Ashley whose father was a minister. Most of Toby's friends have no use for Ashley and his prayers and daily church services. 

The status quo is disturbed by the arrival of a group of new children. Among them is Clara, a girl vivacious enough to have the more mature boys lobbying for her attention. Toby has never had a girlfriend, though he was on the verge of getting one when he was scooped up from his normal, carefree life and brought to the Death House. 

Toby is a holdout. While the others willingly swallow the "vitamins" that put them to sleep each night, Toby palms his and uses the night-time hours to wander the house. He treasures being alone, sleeping in the afternoons when the others are in recreation. Clara disturbs the equilibrium: she, too is a night person. At first he resents her encroaching on his domain, but things change with time.

The Death House is a difficult book to categorize. Nominally, given its futuristic setting, it is dystopian science fiction, but the timeframe is unimportant to the story. Pinborough is interested in her batch of characters and how they deal with the death sentences they are all living under. How they interact with and relate to each other, and how they don't. It's a coming of age story where none of the characters will ever get to be "of age." It's also a non-conformist story, where the young rebels test the limits of the restrictions placed on their lives.

Ultimately, it's a heart-wrenching and immensely affecting tale of young love and the lengths to which people will go for each other. These are kids, so there is arbitrary pettiness and wantonly mean behavior, but there are also acts of altruism, mutual support and heroism. It's a more optimistic book than The Lord of the Flies, belying the dark implications of its title. Few readers will come away from it unaffected and uncharmed. It's one of those stories destined to stick with readers long after the final page is turned.

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