I didn't discover that The Death House was a novel for young adults until about a week after I finished reading it. I'd picked it up on the strength of my experience of The Language of Dying - Sarah Pinborough's highly personal and very moving novel of death, grief and the complexity of family love - and the very positive Twitter response to the novel.
While The Death House may have been written for a young audience, it will speak to any reader with an open mind and love and compassion in their hearts.
The novel is set sometime in the relatively near future on an apparently quarantined UK island where children who know themselves as 'defectives' and who have been separated from their families are sent to live out their final weeks, months or years until their unspecified disorder eventually kills them.
The house itself feels like a cross between a down-at-heel rural boarding school and a sanatorium. Here the children are housed until they being displaying symptoms and are spirited off in the middle of the night to their dreaded but unknown fates. It is staffed by an authoritarian matron and antipathetic nurses and teachers.
Ripped from their families and starved of love in an atmosphere that compounds their fear and depression, the children shut down their emotions, protecting themselves from the potential pain of the loss of friends and the tyranny of hope. They keep to groups largely based on the dormitories in which they sleep. It is a miserable half-life they lead, their unknown fates having all but claimed them already.
The story is told from the perspective of Toby, a teenaged boy who gives voice to the anxieties, fears and sense of loss the others clearly feel. Toby is different only in one way: he does not sleep. Instead, hiding away the sedative tablet the rest unwittingly take, he claims the night for himself, prowling the house.
And so it goes until the arrival of Clara, a rare female inmate. Unlike the boys she joins, Clara is not willing to give up the last of her life and very quickly her infectious enthusiasm begins to break down barriers in the house and the children find themselves smiling and laughing again. One of the boys in Toby's dormitory turns a classroom into a chapel and rapidly gains followers. Toby himself finds that, irritatingly at first, the nights are no longer his own. Clara, too, holds back her pill.
This is a clever book. Pinborough, a genre-busting writer of tremendous range, is sparing with contextual information. We are not told what ails the children, nor why they are segregated, nor what happens to them when they take the dreaded journey upstairs. The plot hints at the emergence of an authoritarian state on the mainland that is responsible for the treatment of the children.
When you read The Death House - and you really should - you'll want to know the answers to all those questions but Pinborough does nothing to oblige. Her focus is on the children and the impact that their situation - essentially sat powerless in death's waiting room - has on their psyches and how this develops through their interaction with each other.
It is beautifully done. First and foremost the story is well told and Pinborough keeps it flowing. For those who want it and are receptive, allegory abounds. This is a story that led me at least down a dozen different philosophical allies. I found myself sitting there gazing into space on a number of different occasions pondering some of life's mysteries and challenges. Even without this, though, it's an engrossing story. You'll want to know what comes of Toby, Clara and the others.
And it will affect you. It is by turns heart-breaking and uplifting and whether you're a young adult or not, it's a beautiful story, brilliantly told.