Hello, another guest post by yours truly! This was the second book in the collection sent to me by Gollancz, a book whose description I wouldn’t normally pick up. The line tagged onto the end of the blurb, “Because everybody dies, it’s how you live that counts.”, really didn’t help. Cliché and predictable, I was worried the book would be full of the same.
So what is the Death House? By the end of the book we’re still not entirely sure. It’s a place where children deemed to have the Defective Gene are taken, basically to die. They stay in this house with the rough semblance of life until they become sick, at which point they’re whisked away in the night to the Sanatorium, and never seen again. This aspect was particularly eerie, as all their belongings, their bed, and every mention of them also vanishes into the Sanitorium. This whole Defective Gene is never explained fully. It appears to be some form of genetic predisposition that the world in the book has had for a long time. It used to be a big deal, but now there are tests and Death Houses for people who test positive. Toby hints that if he were to turn he’d be a risk to people around him, but the symptoms are different for everyone in the story. Some develop illnesses, some develop bruising, and they’re always taken to the Sanitorium before anything happens.
Life at the Death House is, as I mentioned, a charade kept up to keep the children quiet. There are classes, nominal free time, meals provided, and several function rooms (music, reading etc.). All of the children know it’s a farce, and the staff seem to be aware of this as well, as all lessons are taught in a drone with nobody even chastising students from staring out the window. At night they’re all given “vitamin supplements”; sleeping pills. Toby knows they’re sleeping pills and so regularly doesn’t take his but spends his nights wandering and being alone.
Everything is in a state of equilibrium until a new delivery of people arrive, one of whom is Clara. Immediately Toby hates her for her attitude; she doesn’t seem to care and is living lightheartedly and in the moment. Everyone else lives with the perpetual fear hanging over them, but she doesn’t seem to let it affect her. Despite being the tough head of his house, this hits Toby hard and brings up how afraid he is in a rather uncomfortable manner.
The rest of the story follows the romance that builds between the two. Clara also doesn’t take her “vitamins”, and so they meet in the night. At first Toby sees this as the ultimate affront, Clara is barging into his nighttime space. Eventually they begin to spend time together in secret, and form a relationship.
It’s difficult to talk about anything in the end of the book without spoiling it, and I really don’t want to do that. For a book about kids waiting around to die, it’s superbly written. The story is suspenseful and feels claustrophobic until Clara begins exploring outside the house. The characters all feel like rounded people, and the younger children remind you that these are just kids, no matter how brave a face they put on. There are a few scenes with a nurse who actually treats them like people, and the way several children instantly gravitate towards her as a mother figure is written perfectly.
The ending isn’t what I’d call a happy one. It does feel like the right one, but it’s not happy. The last half introduces information that punches you in the gut over and over until it’s all done, but would I recommend reading it anyway? Most definitely. It’s a book that’s stuck with me for quite a while now whilst I formulated how to write this review, and I have a feeling it’ll stick with me for longer still.