Finding light in the darkness: My review of ‘The Death House’ by Sarah Pinborough

The Death House grabbed me from page one, and lifted me fully out of a week-long book-hangover slump. Here’s why:


The Death House. Sarah Pinborough. Gollancz. February 2015.

Toby’s life was perfectly normal . . . until it was unravelled by something as simple as a blood test.

Taken from his family, Toby now lives in the Death House; an out-of-time existence far from the modern world, where he, and the others who live there, are studied by Matron and her team of nurses. They’re looking for any sign of sickness. Any sign of their wards changing. Any sign that it’s time to take them to the sanatorium.

No one returns from the sanatorium.

Withdrawn from his house-mates and living in his memories of the past, Toby spends his days fighting his fear. But then a new arrival in the house shatters the fragile peace, and everything changes.

Because everybody dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts.

I was hooked from the very first (creepy) sentence of The Death House: “They say it makes your eyes bleed.”

This is the story of 17 year old Toby, who is ripped away from his family and friends and sent to live in the ‘Death House’ after a blood test reveals he carries the ‘Defective’ gene (which is said to lead to some unnamed horrific illness they call ‘changing’ and, eventually, death.) The place Toby is taken to die is a huge manor house in a mysterious location (none of the children know where they are, other than ‘North’), miles away from his old life and the people he loves, where Toby and the other Defective kids are watched over by Matron and her team of nurses.

The household staff are the weirdest and most unsettling thing about this novel, because they barely speak to the children, yet they’re always silently observing, and seem to know everything. I highlighted this line, which sums up their general mega-creepiness and gave me shivers to read:

“Matron and the nurses might seem to vanish for most of the day, hidden in the walls of the house somewhere, but I know they still account for each child, and like ghosts, they watch us quietly without us really seeing them.”

The premise of this book was hella-creepy all round, which is what originally enticed me, but I quickly came to care about the characters, as they all feel like very real people (they could easily be kids you know/grew up with). I particularly loved Will and Louis, two of the younger kids in Dorm 4, who Toby feels a sense of responsibility towards. Neither were naive about their circumstances (they all know that death is creeping up on them), but they were infinitely less jaded than Toby, and their friendship gave instant heart to the bleak situation.

Toby is a conflicted and withdrawn character, and I had mixed feelings about him to begin with. He initially comes across as very hostile towards some of the other children in the house, particularly his dorm-mate Ashley, a boy who prays aloud every night and is relatively harmless, but who Toby actively hates and sees as flaunting his smug lack of fear about death in his face. I found Toby’s hatred of Ashley a little grating, because really, although Toby has reasons for viewing Ashley’s faith as pointless, Ashley never does anything to Toby and never comes over as preachy or judgemental – in fact, Toby is the one acting this way at the beginning.

I decided to let my feelings over this slide, because the story was so intriguing, and I’m glad I did, because Toby’s true character slowly unfurls throughout the story, and the development feels very rewarding as we start to see glimpses of the kindness and tenderness Toby has always been capable of (and no doubt was a prominent part of his personality before he got carted off to the Death House.)

Clara, a new girl who turns up at the Death House, is the catalyst for this change in Toby, and I thought she was an excellent character. She draws Toby out of himself (despite his reluctance to talk to her at all to begin with) just by being herself – vibrant, unafraid of childish fun and adventure (girl climbs alotta trees!), and someone who refuses to let the inevitability of death suck the life out of her.

All of the characters deal with their fear of death (which is represented by the extremely sinister sounding ‘Sanitorium’ – a place they can be wheeled off to in the middle of the night, and never return from, if they start to show signs of ‘changing’), in very different ways. Some turn to religion, some to friends, some can’t stop talking about what it will be like when it happens, and others don’t want to talk about it at all. This novel deals with the subject of mortality from all angles, and yet this isn’t as bleak as it sounds – ultimately, this is a book about coping and surviving by letting others in, and in that sense, there is real light in the darkness of this story.

I became very attached to all of the characters in The Death House, and as such, I found some parts of the story truly devastating. At one point, I had to stop reading and have a full-on cry, because my Kindle screen was starting to look like a window covered in raindrops.

If you’re looking for a compelling story, a strange/creepy setting, believable (and lovable characters), and a story to get you thinking about what it really means to be alive, I cannot recommend this book enough! One of my favourite reads this year.

7 thoughts on “Finding light in the darkness: My review of ‘The Death House’ by Sarah Pinborough”

  1. This books sounds really intriguing. When I started reading your review I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not for me, it sounds too dark.’ However reading on to find out that there are some spooky matrons that monitor peculiar ‘change’s has left me curious. I wonder if there is some twist in end about the matrons. I shall be putting this on my reading list!

    1. Ahh I thought dark was right up your street 🙂

      I think the themes are dark, but most of the focus is on the relationships between the characters, so it doesn’t feel too heavy (even though it’s about death haha…)

      I think you would enjoy it – there is a kind of twist, but you don’t necessarily get all of your questions answered. I was okay with that though as you find out enough, and I felt like the ending made sense and didn’t feel forced in any way. Definitely add it to your list! xx

  2. Halp! I’m meant to do a response to an award thingy but I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT A BOOK SLUMP IS! *sobs* Love your review, btw. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to read The Death House soon… AFTER I PLOW THROUGH THE 600 OR SO BOOKS ON MY TBR PILE *sobs harder*

    1. Aww thank you! 😊 Haha book slump is probably something I made up but it’s basically where I’m flailing around reading the opening to every book under the sun but can’t seem to get into any of them/settle on one!

      I so know how you feel with the 600 strong TBR pile. I’m slowly starting to lose visibility of my bedroom floor…

      1. Thank you so much I was so lost. I’m starting to lose visibility of my house floor, so yeah BEAT THAT *sobs* *whispers: I have way too many books*

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