The Death House

      Publisher: Gollanz 

      RRP: £16.99

      Author: Sarah Pinborough 

      Published:  2015-02-26




Toby is a boy who has forgotten how to live. Clara is a girl who was born to die. 

Toby's life was perfectly normal. Taken from his family, he now lives in the Death House. Isolated from the outside world the inhabitants of are watched for any signs of a mysterious illness . 

Clara was a girl who had everything. Adored by her friends and her family, her life was destined for greatness. Now, Clara is the newest resident of the Death House and she's determined not to allow her life to end there.

This is Toby and Clara's story.


Features elements that some readers may find problematic.


The Death House is an unusual piece of genre fiction. The elements that place it within a science fiction context are slight; and had it been penned by an author less known for their genre work, may have been classified differently.

The Death House is set in some nonspecific future version of the United Kingdom, where children are vulnerable to, and closely monitored for, some sort of illness. This illness is fatal, it seems, and children and young people who are tested for it are removed from their families forthwith. There is no time to say one’s goodbyes or collect possessions; you are collected by a black van and deposited at The Death House.

The illness is nebulous in nature and can manifest in a variety of ways; no two cases are alike, so all symptoms could be the beginning of the end. Once the young people begin to show signs of the illness they are whisked away in the dead of night, all traces of them wiped from the house, and never spoken of again. There is no funeral, no mourning, no goodbyes and certainly no comfort from the staff.  The (predominantly) male children in the house become tribal, forming gangs along dormitory lines and competing to see which dorm survives with all its members intact for the longest.

The story follows the current residents of the house, focusing on the characters of Toby and Clara and the blossoming relationship between them, forged in such hopeless circumstances. The children are bereft of kindness; their teachers, merely going through the motions until their time is over, and the nurses, cold and unfeeling. The children live in dorms, eat meals together and attend lessons under the tutelage of staff whose behaviour makes clear the futility of any attempt at educating these children; they are merely marking time, going through the motions.

Toby struggles to adapt to life in the sanatorium/boarding school environs and develops his own routine; lessons in the morning, napping in the afternoon, a long bath, then spitting out his night time medication - a sedative fed to all the children - in order to have some private time. This routine collapses when girls arrive at the house, and one of them also opts to hide her nightly medication. Initially awkward and resentful, it is bittersweet to watch the budding romance between the two lead characters develop in such a desperate situation. The Death House deftly evokes teenage feelings of first love, first lust, first exploration, with the sense of impending mortality one usually associates with older characters.

Other than this unspecified illness and the unspecified town, there are no science fiction or fantasy elements in The Death House; it is an intensely human tale. The story is well written, and it is easy to identify with the young people, and share a sense of horror at their fate, and at the clinical apathy of the staff. Despite this, there are elements which some readers may find problematic. The vivid descriptions of symptoms may be uncomfortable for some, and while engaging it is not an easy or cheery read. The Death House’s biggest issue, however, is with its ending which, without revealing spoilers, feels like the book is romanticising, idealising and almost fetishising not just first love, but also young death.

Overall, The Death House is a beautifully crafted tale of loss and longing which is emotionally taxing on the reader, and which falls just short of greatness. While it has elements that are compelling and enjoyable, its finale sadly feels both mawkish and unsatisfying, eventually veering into very dicey territory, ultimately making it very difficult to recommend.