Jo Fletcher Books, out 5 December
A woman watches as her father lies dying…
There are some stories which don’t feel like stories; tales which are somehow diminished if thought of purely as fiction. They’re ones which talk directly to you as a reader and provide you with words and expressions for feelings which you either have already experienced, or know that you must. The Language of Dying is one such tale.
Sarah Pinborough’s novella on the surface is straightforward: the middle daughter, who has been nursing her father as he dies from lung cancer, summons her siblings, since it’s clear that the old man has little time left. This becomes a cue for reminiscence about the stresses and strains which have affected both the narrator and her family – the many things, too long gone unsaid, which have led to misunderstandings and chasms; the ways in which people spend their time dying, rather than living, through choices they made which really were never choices at all.
Each of the family deals – or fails to deal – with the situation in their own way: the weak can be strong, and vice versa. Each is damaged in some way, perhaps through the actions of their father, and that damage starts to show as the façades they present to the world, and each other, begin to crack.
Underlying it all is a precise use of language which makes the clinical horror of the decay of the father’s body – while he is still alive and still occasionally surfacing mentally – all the more unsettling. The details about the different sorts of breathing, the changes in reactions as a person approaches death – all of these are then echoed in the equally horrific descriptions of an abusive relationship and the innocuous way in which it can begin. Anyone who has been in such a relationship will recognise the powerful truths in this part, and even if you didn’t realise it before you read that flashback, somehow you know that Pinborough has nailed the equally powerful emotions of witnessing the death of a loved one as effectively – not just the days immediately prior to death, but the slow decay into them.
There is a fantasy element to this (certainly enough to warrant a review on this site), but, as with Pinborough’s recent Mayhem, its presence doesn’t overwhelm the book – you can as easily see it as pure metaphor rather than as a physical presence if you choose. However be warned: its involvement in the ending (whether real or imagined by the narrator) is likely to haunt you.
Verdict: In The Language of Dying, Pinborough demonstrates the ability to skewer relationships and emotions with precise phrases. It’s a talent she demonstrates in her more plot-driven work, but hopefully she will indulge in another equally powerful character piece before too long. 9/10