'The Death House' by Sarah Pinborough

“They say it makes your eyes bleed. Almost pop out of your head and then bleed.”

This is the first line of The Death House. Cleverly, Sarah Pinborough has forced you to wonder what “it” is and why it makes your eyes bleed, and who is saying it. It’s every writer’s dream and every writer’s curse: get the first page, paragraph, hell, get the first sentence just right, so readers will want to know more.

Until about 18 months ago, I’d never head of Sarah Pinborough. Then I went to the inaugural Gollancz Festival at Waterstone’s Piccadilly and there she was, hosting writerly discussion panels. I subsequently started following her on Twitter and loved her irreverent comments, including quite a lot of swear words (I approve). And before The Death House was even published, I knew I wanted to read it. But I have a tendency to wait until the paperbacks come out, and so I had a lot of frustration ahead of me while it was published in hardback first. All the comments from people saying they loved it, it made them cry, didn’t help. After a while, I was climbing the walls.

Last month, Plot Bunnies went on a group outing to Gollancz Festival 2015, and there was Sarah again. I’d been tweeting her about the book and saying I’d get it when I was a bit less skint. I mentioned my intentions again when I spoke to her at the mass signing after the main events and she kindly said that she would send me a copy. For this, I gave her a massive hug. After all, she didn’t have to say that. At the festival, one of our members bought the hardback of The Death House. At Fantasy Con a little while later, it was among the freebies, and another of our members tweeted a picture of it at me. Let’s just say I came down with a severe case of book envy.

However, truly a lady of her word, Sarah sent me a signed copy of the book the week after it was published in paperback. Never having read any of her books before, I really hoped I was going to love it. Because there’s never a guarantee with such things, and despite all the comments on Twitter, I still didn’t know what it would be like. What if I didn’t like it? It wouldn’t be the first time a book has been hyped to the rafters and I’ve thought it was shit. I was only guessing I’d love Sarah’s writing from having followed her for a while, in which time I had discovered that she was completely barking.

I do hate stating the bleeding obvious, but I did love it. I started the book one evening and finished it the following night, when instead of reading, I should have been sleeping, in preparation for an event the next day. But, to quote Stephen King (yes, the Stephen King), “I couldn’t put it down.”

The premise of The Death House is fairly simple. Children in an alternative future are tested for a defective gene. If the gene hasn’t shown up in their blood by the time they’re 18, it never will. If the gene does show up, they’re carted off, unceremoniously, to what is known to some as the Death House, of which there are several around the country. It’s never stated explicitly what the gene is. All that’s known is the symptoms are different for everyone. And when someone shows signs of changing, be it sniffles, bruises or a rank, rotten smell, they’re taken in the night to the sanatorium, a place no one wants ever to go. Because a trip to the sanatorium is a one-way journey.

The story is narrated in the present tense by Toby, and interspersed with flashbacks about his former life and how he came to be in the Death House. Girls rarely end up there. The nurses tend the children, but interact only infrequently. And everyone lives in fear of Matron.

As children die, everyone wonders who will be next. There is rivalry between Dorm 4 (where Toby sleeps) and Dorm 7, as they are the only two dorms left still with their full quota. No one has died. Yet. But one night, Toby discovers there is something that Matron doesn’t want him, and his dorm mate Louis, to ever find out. As a writer, thoughts were whirring in my head as I read this. What has been discovered about Toby and Louis? For a while, we don’t know, as Toby doesn’t know, either. I had a fair idea, but it was only at the end that it was explained. (For the record, I was right.) But the very end… that was just beautiful, and one of the loveliest and most touching endings I’ve ever read.

That’s as much as I’m going to give you about the story itself. Otherwise, it will spoil it for you, and I really want you to read it. There is, unsurprisingly, lots of swearing. There is also some sex. This is, I understand, typical of Sarah Pinborough, so if you’re of a sensitive disposition, you may be offended by the liberal use of the word ‘fuck’, especially by young children. However, we at Plot Bunnies heartily approve the use of such language, as it conveys a realism that too many writers have been loath to confront. Children swear. It’s gonna happen whether you like it or not, so you may as well get over it. Another nice touch is Sarah’s use of children’s language. ‘Me and Clara’ rather than ‘Clara and I’, for example. It’s far more realistic and gives a sense of the inhabitants (one could say prisoners) of the Death House being really very young. Children of 10 or younger, some teenagers. The oldest is Tom, who had only 6 months to go, but was finally discovered to be carrying the defective gene aged 17 and a half. This, understandably, makes him bitter, though like all the others, he learns to live with it. There’s nothing else he can do.

The Death House is beautifully written - it forces you to turn the page and find out what happens next. It’s disturbing. It’s heartening. It’s frightening. It's uplifting. And most of all, it’s human. Sarah Pinborough has managed to do what all good writers ought to be able to do: draw you in, keep you there, crush your soul, then make you sit for a while and cherish the beauty of what you’ve just read.

I’ll be telling everyone to read this book. In fact, I’ve already started. So go read it.

Thank you, Sarah. You're a love.