Book Review: House of Stairs by William Sleator
Five sixteen year old orphans living in state institutions are called to their respective offices, blindfolded, and dropped off in a building that consists entirely of stairs and landings. There appears to be no way out. The toilet is precariously perched in the middle of a bridge, and they must drink from it as well. To eat they must bow to the whims of a machine with odd voices and flashing lights. It is starting to change them. Will any of them fight it, or will they all give in?
This book was enthralling from the first scene, featuring Peter awakening on a landing intensely disoriented and frightened. Showing a bunch of teenagers obviously in an experiment opens itself up to caricature and stereotype, but Sleator skillfully weaves depths and intricacies to them.
The writing is beautiful, smoothly switching viewpoints in various chapters from character to character. Hints are dropped about the outside world, presumably future America, that indicate the teens are from a land ravaged by war and intense morality rules. For instance, their state institutions were segregated by gender. Sleator weaves these tiny details into the story in subtle ways that still manage to paint a clear framework for the type of cultural situation that would allow such an experiment to take place.
It is abundantly clear throughout the book that the teens are facing an inhumane experiment. Yet what is not clear at first is what a beautiful allegory for the dangerous direction society could take this story is. Not in the sense that a group of teens will be forcibly placed in a house of stairs, but that some more powerful person could mold our surroundings to make us do what they want us to do. To remove our most basic humanity. This is what makes for such a powerful story.
It’s also nice that friendship in lieu of romance is central to the plot. Modern day YA often focuses intensely on romance. Personally, my teen years were much more focused on friendship, and I enjoyed seeing that in this YA book. I also like how much this humanizes the animals facing animal testing, and Sleator even dedicates the book to “the rats and pigeons who have already been there.”
House of Stairs, quite simply, beautifully weaves multiple social commentaries into one. It is a fast-paced, engrossing read, and I highly recommend it to everyone.
5 out of 5 stars