One of my pet hates is books which are misrepresented by their covers and blurbs. A book cover is a visual language. It tells the ideal reader THIS is the book they want to read; THIS is what their life has been missing. It tells them about the others books they've enjoyed and lets them know THIS book is going to be just as good, MAYBE BETTER. Misrepresentation only leads to tumult of poor reviews from those expecting something distinctly other than they got.
Sixteen-year-old Toby lives in The Death House with the other Defectives. Presided over by Matron and her team of nurses, the children of the house are watched carefully for symptoms of their illness - a runny nose, shaking limbs - when they will be taken upstairs to the sanatorium. Nobody ever returns.
From the blurb, the cover and the title, I could be forgiven for expecting something sinister and creepy. Instead, I got a largely gripping young adult novel which had me initially pleased it had been so badly represented (because otherwise I wouldn't have picked it up).
The Death House begins with the arrival of new Defectives to house, including the rare spectre of a girl: Clara, who has red hair. Where Toby is angry - at his role as patriarch to the younger kids in his dorm, at the theft of his life - Clara is bright, like her red hair, vibrant, like her red hair, and a source of annoyance to the despairing teenager. The previously divided community is mended by red-headed Clara's manic pixie dreamgirlish red hair, the older boys playing nicely with each other in an attempt to impress her.
Which is what this book is, really: a love story about children who are having to cope with their imprisonment and imminent death. I find I like the idea of it more than I ultimately liked the book. What's there is kind of shallow, and repetitive. I can think of other books which do this far better.
I think what frustrated me the most was the lack of worldbuilding. By the end I was reading madly, eager to find out more about the world, but I was to be left disappointed. The sci-fi/dystopian/whatever-you-want-to-call-them elements of the book play a firm second fiddle to the emotional story of the characters. This can be done well - think of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go - but where Ishiguro drip-fed specifics to allow an understanding of his world and how it worked, Pinborough doesn't bother. The Defectives are never explained. What they are, what they will become, the place of The Death Houses in UK society ... all remains unexplained. I'm guessing when I say this follows Ishiguro's lead in being an alternative world rather than a near-future-dystopian.
In Never Let Me Go, there is a reason for the house the characters are brought up in - it's the sort-of the point of the book - but with Pinborough's Death House, I just wonder why anybody would bother with this set-up. Why make a pretence at continuing their education? Why not just euthanise them? The question is touched on but so indirectly that I wonder if the answer is Pinborough's or mine.
Clearly The Death Houses are a Thing in Toby's world - on the day he is taken he notices the empty streets, only appreciating why when he is ushered into the van waiting outside his house - yet he offers no information about them. Another character indicates there are several of the houses around the country, so it's not as though it's only a dozen children a year who are found to be Defective. What place do they occupy in this world? By concentrating on the love story, Pinborough has abandoned lore to an annoying degree.
Then there is Matron, the faceless autocrat, whose eye the children avoid drawing lest they find themselves come for in the night. She is ridiculously two-dimensional. Without any wider context, I'm again having to make guesses why she makes the decisions she does and really, the best I come up with is stupidly over-simplified.
Overall, I sort of enjoyed it. The Death House is a fast read and one I stayed up to finish, but in the end what it offered was not what I wanted, nor what I enjoy. I honestly don't know why this isn't marketed as Young Adult, unless it's because this is a British book which involves British teens doing what I, obviously, was far too well brought up to engage in at that age. I'd cautiously recommend it, but you may be left feeling unsatisfied.