The Death House – Sarah Pinborough

I heard Sarah Pinborough read from The Death House at SRFC earlier this year, and I confess I was excited.  It was immediately obvious that she is a very skilled writer and the reading and Q&A she did made me want to read her book.  So I was delighted to win a draw on Goodreads for a copy of the ARC of The Death House, kindly provided by Gollancz.  I was also really pleased when my book club selected it as one of our books (largely because that automatically pushed it up the to be read queue).

But I’m afraid my excitement ended there.

Although Pinborough is clearly a very skilled and talented writer, this is just not a style of book or story that I like, however competently it is written.  The Death House follows a group of teenagers suffering from a terminal condition that is never fully explained.  They are identified as a result of genetic testing and then sequestered away from friends and family in a remote location that is a cross between a boarding school and a hospice.  The novel is a treatment of how we deal with grief, loss and impending mortality, combined with heightened teenage emotion and an at times mawkish sentimentality.  Which is not a mix for me.

I really struggled to connect with any of the characters.  They’re a pretty predictable bunch.  There’s the clever one, who’s a bit geeky and lacks social skills.  The one who’s only function is to die early to reinforce the peril the characters face.  The one from the wrong side of the tracks who is there just to fight with the protagonist, enabling a cathartic release of emotion after which everyone is friends again.  And the Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose arrival forces the protagonist to question his assumptions and really experience life for the first time.

Pinborough is an accomplished screenwriter and she writes in the style of a certain school of screenwriting.  You can really see those cinematic beats coming through in her work, but that comes at the expense of rather unexciting characterisation, structure and clockwork plotting.  This was a well-written novel, but it was also one that cantered round some very predictable territory without offering much that was new or interesting to grab one’s attention.

So, while The Death House is probably a good example of what it’s trying to be, and I’ve already acknowledged it’s a style of novel I’m not fond of, it is not a novel I was excited by.  I was, if anything, left feeling rather unsatisfied.  Such a clearly skilled writer ought to be capable of giving us much more than she did in this book.

Goodreads rating: 2*

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