Reviews of two novels by Sarah Pinborough that originally appeared in Black Static #48:-
With her novel MURDER (Jo Fletcher Books pb, 336pp, £8.99) Sarah Pinborough returns to Victorian London and the character of Police Surgeon Thomas Bond, in a story set several years after the events described in Mayhem. Bond’s career is going well and there are signs that his romantic feelings towards Juliana Harrington may be returned, with the only fly in his ointment an inability to make friends with Juliana’s son by her deceased husband James. Despite his good intentions Bond can’t warm to the boy, seeing reflected in the child’s innocent eyes the shadow of the upir that possessed his father. And then Edward Kane, a wealthy industrialist who was a friend of James Harrington, arrives from America and asks Bond’s help in making sense of strange letters he received from Harrington before the man died. Bond knows only too well what truth lies hidden in their text and is forced to dissemble so that his role in Harrington’s death doesn’t come to the surface, only matters then become even more complicated when Kane is attracted to Juliana, a feeling that could well be mutual. Bond begins to see menace on every side, even suspecting his old friends of complicity with the upir, who it appears is once again loose on the streets of London.
As with the previous book, Pinborough is pitch perfect in creating the feel of Victorian London, wearing her research with a lightness that only emphasises the skill with which the historical backdrop to the story is captured on the page. The reader is effortlessly drawn in, experiencing the sights and sounds, smells and tastes of the period, all delineated with a remarkable freshness. The portrait of an idyllic family background, albeit one tainted by the loss of a loved one, is also rendered in compelling detail. The serpent in this garden is the ostensibly admirable figure of Dr Bond, whose past is rapidly catching up with him. Inevitably there is tension between him and Juliana, because Bond can never reveal what happened to her husband, must bear the burden of duplicity in all his dealings with the woman he has come to love, and similarly the constant threat of discovery and exposure dictates much of how he acts, so that there is an extra frisson in Bond’s rivalry with Edward Kane.
However the real thrust of the book, and the thing that to my mind makes it superior to Mayhem, is that this time around the enemy for Bond is not some external foe, but the flaws in his own nature, which come to fever pitch when he is possessed by the upir. Given the bloodlust, Bond must fight to control the desire, at first slaking his appetite on prostitutes, but then coming to a full realisation of the horror of his situation, of the thing that has taken up residence in his body. In trying to starve it of sustenance and bring about its end along with his own, Bond simply plays into the creature’s hands, helping the upir to attain its real goal.
There is a lot going on with this book, combining as it does aspects of the historical novel, the supernatural tale, and detective fiction, with a slice of psychological profiling to flavour, but where Pinborough takes the greatest risks is in making her hero, who had previously seemed an entirely admirable personage, into somebody with feet of clay, a man who is subject to jealousy and unreasoning dislikes, who when possessed at first gives in to the creature, finding reasons and excuses to act as he does, even while knowing that it is wrong. One suspects that in his moral judgements Bond is very much a product of his time, and symptomatic of a type of masculinity come misogyny that is still prevalent today, more than a hundred years after it should have fallen into the dust and been long forgotten. This was a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable read, one in which the dark side throws light into shadowed corners and we do not like what we see there.
If Murder is set in the past, there is a sense of being outside of time to Pinborough’s other recent offering, THE DEATH HOUSE (Gollancz hc, 288pp, £12.79), though one or two throwaway remarks hint that the novel is set at some indeterminate point in the future
Children with a rare illness are taken from their families and relocated to the Death House of the title, where they live “an out-of-time existence far from the modern world”. Every so often one of them will get ill and be taken away to the sanatorium, from which they never return. Ruling the roost is Matron and her team of nurses, aided and abetted by a teaching staff, but for the most part the children are given free rein, which we learn is tempered by intake of drugs that make them sleep at night. Toby is top dog of Dorm 4, helping his fellow inmates retain their status within this hierarchic and fiercely competitive environment, but Toby has a secret. He has stopped taking the drugs that make the children sleep at night, and roams the corridors of the Death House when everyone else is sleeping. Then the apple cart of his existence is upset by the arrival of the scintillating Clara. With Clara the possibility of love dawns, and soon after there follow terrible revelations about the true nature of the Death House and the fate of those imprisoned within its walls.
With the possible exception of her short novel The Language of Dying this is the best thing that I have seen from Pinborough. It is a superb work, one in which the backdrop, a dystopian world in which even winter is a novelty, is largely a product of suggestion, with the reader left to fill in the gaps, and all the more effective and real for that. Pinborough only gives us the minimum of information, the things we need to know for the story to work, and though there are adults in the story they exist on the periphery of what is taking place, powers and principalities who provide the stage setting and driver for the plot but are never more than a quiet hum in the background. It is the story of the children, a powerful coming of age tale, one that invites comparison with the occasionally mentioned Lord of the Flies, though Pinborough remains her own woman, providing an entirely different route for her characters to take.
And, like Lord of the Flies, it is not a book that presents some idealised, sugar and spice version of children. There is savagery here, seen in the way in which the pecking order is maintained, the occasional acts of violence through which conflicts are resolved, and as far as that goes Toby’s resistance of the bully Jake is emblematic of the power structure within the Death House. But Pinborough is too skilled a writer and too canny a psychologist to provide us with a token bully, Jake growing in stature and winning respect as we become aware of what motivates him, the incidents in his history that have made him the boy he is. All of the characters grow and develop, learning an acceptance of the things they cannot change and doing their best to alter those they can.
Toby is the centre of it all, at first very proud of the night time escapades that make him feel special, different and somehow superior to everyone else, not wanting to share them with others and resentful of Clara, but she exercises a catalytic influence over him and Toby is changed for the better. He begins to think beyond the scope of his own tiny gang and its standing within the larger community; he becomes a protector of the weak not because it inflates his ego to do so but because it is the right thing to do. Hanging over everything is the pall of the Death House, an atmosphere that is almost palpable and seeps into the bones of the characters infusing them with an acceptance of the inevitable, a defeatism that seems impossible for the inmates to confront head on.
Like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and in the aloof figure of the Matron given a nemesis every bit as intimidating as Nurse Ratched, Toby is the one who rises above all this and finds something worth fighting for, a reason to escape instead of just waiting round for death. His love for Clara is the engine that drives this transformation, but at the same time it leads him to a new sense of maturity, one in which the decision to accept the inevitable is not a sign of defeatism but an act of triumph. And in doing so he makes it possible for another to escape and tell the story of those left behind, the lies that demand their lives are forfeit even when there is no need. Yes, there is horror of a kind to be found within its pages, but there is much more beside, so that ultimately The Death House is a book that elevates the reader. We come away from it feeling like better, wiser, kinder people for having known Toby and Clara, Louis and Jake, for having shared in their adventures, the triumphs and tragedies that are part of every true life.