A provocative read

The Death House: Sarah Pinborough

‘The Death House’ is a provocative novel. And while it takes its time to come into its stride, once it does, it is impossible to put down and has to be finished in one breath. It is also difficult to slot. There is an element of science fiction, but not much of science is really involved. There are hints of the zombie world and tropes of horror fiction. But at the core, it really is a compelling study of characters and tells a story of love and rebellion in the face of dread and utter despondency.

The story is set in some indeterminate time, taking place on an isolated island off the British coast. ‘ The Death House’ is some kind of a hostel that houses boys and girls between eight and eighteen who have been diagnosed to have defective genes and have been brought here from mainland Britain away from their home and parents.  The defective gene is identified through regular blood tests and if it does not show up before one is eighteen one is going to be safe. Once at The Death House, the boys and girls go through the pretense of school life. The stern matron, nurses and the teachers are the only adult inhabitants of the island and they do not interact with the children more than it is necessary. The children are allowed to play games, make music and engage in sundry activities. The problem arises when one of them gets real sick, which is revealed through symptoms that can vary from person to person. What happens when someone gets real sick? It is not spelt out, but the hint is that he or she turns into some kind of monster. When the nurses spot the symptoms of sickness in someone, the person’s bed is wheeled at dead of night into a lift which carries the person upstairs to ‘The Sanatorium’. No one returns from ‘The Sanatorium’. All the denizens of The Death House are aware of these details and that is the constant dread they live under.

But in the meanwhile life goes on. The boys and girls are allocated dorms and there is rivalry between dorms. The characters are well etched and their interactions explore teen psychology with sharp observation. These portions are engaging and remind you of ‘Lord of the Rings’.  The lead of our story, Toby, is the king of Dorm 4 while his rival Jake lords it over Dorm 7. There are little acts of rebellion and distraction that some of the boys and girls indulge in. There is Ashley who sets up a makeshift church where he conducts prayers and holds memorials for residents who have been carted off to The Sanatorium. The nurses feed them sleeping tablets before bedtime, passing them off as vitamins, to keep them out of trouble.  Toby has a found a way to cheat and not take these tablets. This allows him to wander around at night and explore the place.

Things get interesting when Clara, a new girl arrives on the scene. She too is not into taking the tablets and is doing some exploring on her own. When Toby and Clara meet new vistas open up. Clara shows Toby how they could still live in the present no matter how dire their future might be. Not that she does not feel the dread, but she wants to deal with it with energy rather than resignation. She shows Toby how they could climb a tree and jump over the wall to reach the sea. They walk over the shingles to find a cave from which the water recedes at night.  It becomes their private cave where they come close to each other and one lucky night they see the Northern Lights break out across the sky with their glorious purples, greens and blues. They are now happy. And not afraid. They are in love. She is his mermaid and he is her mermaid king. They become more daring now and plan a final act of rebellion.

This is where events turn fast. And while one might be expecting a sudden twist in the tale one couldn’t quite be prepared for the gut-punch the author delivers in the final denouement. It is both uplifting and heartbreaking.

What kind of deeper meaning one can draw from the tale if at all? Though not explicitly spelt out, one cannot but think of The Death House as a metaphor for the human existence. Of course no one thinks of ones condition as this hopeless or even so pressingly terminal. But in essence all of us must face the impending nothingness that is death. There is Ashley, his church, and his consolation that no one is alone with God. But that really is a weak straw. What ultimately helps, the author suggests, is one’s personal act of defiance powered by intense, unconditional love.

This review was first published the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald on June 5, 2016.



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