The Death House – Sarah Pinborough

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Gollancz 2015

When I real-time review this novel, my comments will be found in the thought stream below or by clicking this post’s title above.

21 thoughts on “The Death House – Sarah Pinborough

  1. one, two

    I know nothing about this book till now, other than I hear it’s liked by people I respect. I myself liked the beginning because I thought originally it might be a dark quality form of, dare I say, poplit, and, indeed, the first few sentences artfully make you think it is a modern loving couple talking in bed together. But soon you know it isn’t. This review’s first and only plot spoiler, I hope. A spoiler kept contained by its presence solely within the text’s first page.
    The text is already something that has really grabbed me, an institutional dormitory, expanding to a thought about other competing dormitories, a ‘Never Let Me Go’-like mystery ambiance, are these boys in the dormitory older than they initially seem, why are they there, what does Matron give them and for what choice illness, an insular quarantined boarding school (I can only look at the book’s title for a clue), we readers are not yet sure, arrested by one italicised modernlit flashback whence our leading spokesman in the text might stem. Captivated, as well as grabbed. Worried, too.
    Worried about how easy it will be for me to avoid spoilers in or out of this text. I shall do my best. I now know at least something about this book – that it is up my street and my usual knack of choosing books to ‘Dreamcatch’ seems still to be working. A good review from me is my choosing a book in the first place. Unless I abandon it later.

    “Louis is trying to eat a fried-egg sandwich made with toast that’s not quite done enough and an egg that’s too runny.”

    • After this review was finished below, it has been suggested that the review itself gives too much away, for which I am sorry. You may wish to read it after you have finished the book.

  2. three

    “….but the music is unfamiliar and who knows how to use a record player, anyway?”

    We learn more of who is with me in this ‘school’. All kids, I guess, are defective till they are taught and then grown up properly. But there is an uncanny power here that affects me beyond the text itself, as if I am being taught something beyond the control of whoever created that text. A tontine of words falling off one by one, like those brought here as too defective to mend, falling off one by one. I remember when I was first brought here earlier today, by talk by those who had themselves already come here, to this school, to this book. Others are here, too, now, after me, as newcomers, come here each time this book gains a new reader in geometric, not arithmetic, progression, because of its power to attract such defectives like me to read it.

  3. four, five

    “The nights are mine.”

    The integrity of each dorm is affected by newcomers and those who leave under cover of night with special nurses. I imagine readers also starting and leaving this book at different points. Females as well as males. Characters moulded for interaction.
    It’s like you can stand the flow of insidious implication, deal with the nature of sympathy and stoicism. Or like you can not. Which is it to be?
    A fatal or fatalistic journey. A sense of dread imparted.
    I believe in this dual reality that I have entered voluntarily while others come and go with almost deadpan acceptance, a breed of enforcement that seems more like an easing into – and then, if appropriate, out of – something. I wonder if I will reach the end or whether the death house will divert me into its diffident byways.

  4. six

    “We’re all going to die alone, so I might as well live alone. There’s nothing to do here anyway.”

    One of the girls has no right to be so happy here, but when she (Clara?) climbs a tree and seems to indicate that this is some sort of Dream Archipelago she can see, I then wonder what it is like to be me – to be Toby?

    “…when all they do is drift around the house like ghosts most days…”

    Called kids above when dreamcatching this text, but aren’t we older than kids?
    And what are those rolls of coloured paper one of us (Ashley?) is carrying, paper with carefully written text on? And those who are in charge of us leasehold characters within (or by means of) this text, teachers presumably headed by this text’s freehold author, what are those smells of indulgence coming from their staffroom?

  5. seven

    “It’s not just Clara who’s shifting the silt. I want things to stay the same. When things stay the same, you can’t feel time moving forward.”

    Sensibilities shift, a singular closeness tried, religions built, a sort of containment of Lord of the Flies as if written by Joan Lindsay and/or Kazuo Ishiguro, but this book is something special and separate by Pinborough, for which has been set a hidden PIN so as fully to enter it – and the reader needs gradually to fathom the code by deduction or preternature. What is outside this book, what inside? What is outside this island, what inside? Insular or insulated? Or is it an island at all or just a rumour of one? As another (Joe?) threatens to slowly accrue or deplete the deadpan tontine of which Toby or not Toby forms part.

    • Before I read any more of this book, just to note here today’s death of David Bowie … his album Blackstar (listening to at the moment) seems to be an equally stoical preparation for us to accept our death – as part of a queue or code or tontine?

  6. eight, nine

    “Life is beautiful. I ache slightly at the monumental mystery of it all…”

    The perfect accompaniment for today’s’ real-time events outside this book. Unofficial absence, if temporary, from the Death House, as we all do sometimes, to explore where we haven’t been and may never go again. But, as a preternatural result, retrieving something from the otherwise irretrievable past, something that pre-echoes today’s worry or budding passion…

    ‘It’s a cave, perfectly arched, carpeted with silt,…”

    Later making a home for that same something in a chance discovery of a transmuted version of its living but wounded form?

    “I don’t know where the words are coming from.”

  7. ten

    “The book is the link to that moment.”

    Poplit takes sway, even a chicklit fancying of and by whom, but it seems highly in context and effectively enacted to the backdrop of this possibly being the fateful first and last such romance for the two kids, now people, as stoical participants, all neatly punctuated by the beak of something wounded and endearing poking through the words…

  8. eleven

    “These thoughts normally send me spinning into a quiet, terrible panic-fear of the waiting dark nothingness, of the sanatorium, the changing, of the certainty of non-existence that’s waiting for me – but this time it doesn’t.”

    This is a book where upon the entering of which you often feel the ground under your feet changing, as Lucy once did. It now bears this mix of description for description’s sake of young adult sex but also a deep sense of the real-time as one’s spiritual strength rather than foreshadowed dread of death embedded within ‘Ashley’s church’. It is also its own version of Area X, where exploring the lighthouse there is here the exploring of the house near the harbour, fathoming out the sickness of the terrain or the sickness of those who still live and once lived on that terrain. Fathoming out what that terrain exactly is or will be. A coincidental symbiosis between two literary works.
    “Henry was the first name that no one ever mentioned again.”
    Will Toby’s be the last? Or yours?

  9. twelve

    “‘Feed the trees well, little friend,’ Clara says. ‘Reach the sunlight.’”

    …and that’s what you must hope happens to ‘objective correlatives’ that once lived to give emotional focus.
    Children normally learn lessons from the death of a loved pet or do they think there is a special pets’ heaven but not an equivalent children’s one? There is that eschatological dichotomy working around these skilfully empathised interactions between inchoate kids heading towards a half-conscious precociousness of approaching young adult death.
    This skilfully pushes all the buttons of the intended readership, creating fear but also strength from the actual stoicism of experiencing that fear while, against the odds, still finding oneself alive.
    The real skill, however, is in making full-fledged adults feel the same, by italicised backstories, a self-empathy generated in the forgotten past, forgotten till now.
    Halfway.

  10. thirteen

    “Most of the time that terrifying nothingness is still something that’s going to happen to the others. Not to me.”

    Denial? Or a double denial by use of the word ‘still’ to imply this isn’t the first time he thought this thought? Chapter ends, though, with some concept of dreading something ‘alongside’ someone else halving that dreading, if not negating completely what you are dreading. One can never half-die, although one might be described as looking ‘half-dead’?

    The expressionless Matron, too, with blood retests, followed by bullying catharsis well told.

    Ominous, dark, imminent, immanent, but good to be ‘alongside’ this book’s other concurrent readers in real-time, if only they are inferred.

  11. fourteen

    “People always say there’s nothing to worry about whether there is or isn’t.”

    As this text implies, it is good to be cool (in the sense of young person ‘cool’ rather than cool like the cold approach of snow at this chapter’s end) and good to be hot (in the sense of loved up) – but never cool to be lukewarm as a sort of hot and cool at once.
    This book joins up differences together and makes something else from both differences. Here the now, the alternate or future England, with unnatural weather systems as a colour-synaesthesic horizon followed by unaccustomed snow, and then ‘loved up’ within the precincts of Ashley’s ‘church’. This text continues to surprise.
    There is only one letter difference between dread and dream. And this book is both.
    But where have all the teachers gone? Long time passing.

  12. fifteen, sixteen

    “She just hasn’t grown into her face yet.”

    The characters build, almost autonomously, through the eyes of Toby or not Toby. He wants the names recorded as in Ashley’s church, including those of the caring nurses, if not the Matron’s. How better than with this his book we read. Midnight dorm feasts or clandestine booze-ups, notwithstanding.

    “I take an old Beano Annual from the library, a relic from the years when snow was normal in England,…”

    That reminds me of a Lucy’s path that is our life’s abruptly changing path, but the Toby-italicised version of myself when, at five years old, the year when the Queen was coronated, my life revolved around the Beano comic’s arrival through the letterbox. I did not then dread death as I somehow expected it never to arrive. Until last year when the dread hit home at last…but still a stoicism, a denial, a withheld consciousnesses about inevitable nothingness when my own version of this book’s Matron finally comes for me in perhaps an old people’s dorm…or in this God’s Waiting-Room that they call the town where I have lived for the last 20 years…

    “Hi, I live in the Death House, but no, no smoking for me. Don’t see the point of making things worse.”

  13. seventeen

    “I wonder if we all have secrets we never share.”

    …like this book has secrets I can’t share. Only you can uncover them by reading it, so you can in turn keep those secrets safe.
    Meanwhile, I can divulge that this book has haunting blends, dread and hope, claustrophobic Famous Five adventure in a Christian or Pagan Narnia-like world that is wholly our world, an adventure that includes precocious sex and a deadly tontine, with more generalised Church Faith versus Secularism, truth versus assumed truth, and illicit forays towards the harbour, perforations of that claustrophobia for allowing escape the blood that, according to the first line of this book, threatens to invade parts of your bodily senses or processes, perforations as preparations for escaping this island, if an island is what it is. Even this reader doesn’t know the answer to that yet, and when he does, he likely won’t tell you. Unless this journey-as-review is just a sublimated way of double bluffing about a mystery that is not a mystery at all.
    A current guess might be a Dream Archipelago of separate non-communicative islands that float along Toby’s bloodstream, each with its own Death House, the ‘boats’ plying between?

  14. eighteen

    “I don’t know how to feel. I can’t actually believe what I’m seeing.”

    For the first time in this book, I believe, Toby, following a clandestine discovery, withdraws the ability to share his own sense of omniscience with the reader. Perhaps that is not surprising, when he manipulates what I see as a weakening Will in the form of a fellow Death House dormer as well as a philosophical ‘will’ – upon absconding to Plato’s Cave to envision the horizon’s colours again along with the ‘imaginary’ mermaids and a momentous deed that needs to be done. Wonderful stuff. Almost feels there is a determination of necessity to this stoical narration as well as an unwinding free-will real-time that has not yet happened till you ‘see’ it happen.

  15. nineteen

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    “I wonder which one of them had looked out of the window and seen Will sitting against the tree.

    “I realise there’s so much about Will I’ll never know.”

    “We’re still in the post-Will weird.”

    The narrative stays haunting, as with Toby and Clara’s anticipation, transcended by a sense of respect for others, visiting Ashley’s Church, facing the recriminations of those who may have expected better of them. Threaded through with the ominous return of new teachers and nurses…. It’s no picnic, it’s like the Hanging Rock in reverse?

  16. twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two

    “It blooms like a black rose across her pale skin.”

    A deep anticipation accompanied by dread and happiness – doubt, too, on both sides of faith. On both sides of fate, And who will share the deadly tontine’s escape?
    Secret retention of a certain piece of once read omniscient knowledge still prevails, yet the initials in the tree, are they rubbed out? Chiselled out by Clara with her nails as Toby watches her up there? The text is silent about this and other matters, too. We can only see one side of each face, as well as faith and fate. And the Matron awaits the picnickers’ return in another book if not in this one?

  17. twenty-three, twenty-four

    “(ha! Sometimes you have to see the funny side)”

    The obverse or parenthesis of the tontine.

    The perfect consummation of this haunting young adult story for old adults as well.

    And a window of closure in the form of the written chink in the omniscience already on its way to me as reader, in fact now written into the text just in time for when I this minute reached it in real-time. The italicised self that is me.
    Humanity (each of us in turn) arguably has its own creation or destruction primed within it. The ‘Toby’ IS State or the ‘not Toby’ ISN’T State, whichever.

    “I hope the tree lives a long, long time.”

    ——

    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. — TS Eliot

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