The Language of Dying (2009): Sarah Pinborough


This short novel is a curious beast. Its author is better known for her horror fiction and yet this is a story fully grounded in real life: in one of those two life-events we all share. Its narrator is a young woman who cares for her dying father in his last fight against cancer and, with stark honesty, lays out the pain and very earthly horror of the final days. It isn’t an easy read, but its power is astonishing.

Death is one of the final taboos. We all know what we should do when we get the call: we should rally round; be there for one another; share old memories and try to stave off the darkness. But ignoring that darkness doesn’t make it disappear. Our narrator has been at her father’s side in his final months, a constant, loving and supportive presence, but it’s now gone beyond the time for them to muddle along together. Steeling herself, she calls together her siblings and watches, always the awkward, left-out middle child, as her brothers and sister struggle to know what to do and how to react. Pinborough explores the selfishness that can so easily arise in the face of a loved one’s dying: to manage one’s own distress by avoiding, as far as possible, the cause of it; and the eagerness to leave arrangements to someone else. For our narrator, there’s no chance of that. She has taken on the task of caring, even when it’s so hard that it threatens to break her heart apart.

For death isn’t only the physical weakness and the breaking down of the body. It’s the organising; the funeral arrangements; the legal business of it all. The strange feeling of looking into the eyes of someone you love and fighting to see them still there beneath the ravages of disease. The coming and going of Macmillan nurses. The waiting. The desperate longing for it all to be over, and the fear, and guilt, and confusion of the present. Now, as she sags under the weight of her responsibilities, the narrator looks back across her life – across all their lives – tracing the paths which she and her siblings have followed, and which have brought them back, all just a little bit broken, to this house.

The Language of Dying is not what I expected. It’s harsher, more honest and less ethereal; and yet, for all that, there is a magic in it, which will leave you in a moment’s silence when you’re done. Many reviewers have praised it for its bravery in venturing into ground that’s so rarely covered in novels, and that may be true. For my own part, it reminded me of my uncle’s final months earlier this year, and the dauntless work that my mum did to make him as comfortable as possible for as long as possible. As the narrator of this little book proves, love lies not in coming when you’re called, but in always being there when you’re needed, whether you’re called or not. Yet the scrupulous clarity of the book is muddled a little by its hints of the fantastic, and for me this undermined some of its bravery. In real life we don’t get the comforts offered to the narrator. Reality is more mundane: we have to wait and watch and then, afterwards, just grit our teeth, grieve and get on with it – which, in a way, is even more heroic.

I daresay I’d be able to write about this more lyrically if I were more detached from it, but I can’t. Had I realised exactly what it would be about, I confess that I wouldn’t have chosen to read this book just at the moment, but there’s no doubt that it’s a moving piece of work, admirably unafraid to confront that one true horror which will one day face all of us.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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