The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

I have noticed a pattern forming. Whenever I think I have got my list of books for the year sorted I will suddenly read one or two books that completely change that. One such book has been Sarah Pinborough’s latest The Language of Dying, a novella which I knew very let about, read, and was completely blown away by – and I don’t say that often.

Quercus Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 131 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In The Language of Dying Sarah Pinborough creates a frank and unflinching look at death and how it affects those who are dying and those around the dying. Through an internal monologue, or internal dialogue maybe, of a woman as she looks after and cares for her father, who is dying of cancer, on the last night of his life. As she sits watching the minutes slowly tick by she thinks back over her family’s life, and her life, as a whole and the events over the recent months and weeks. It seems as her father has deteriorated, the links within her family to her siblings have done the same. She also occasionally peers behind the curtains as if waiting for something, but what?

There is a language to dying. It creeps like a shadow alongside the passing years and the taste of it hides in the corners of our mouths. It finds us whether we are sick or healthy. It is a secret hushed thing that lives in the whisper of the nurses’ skirts as they rustle up and down our stairs. They’ve taught me to face the language one syllable at a time, slowly creating an unwilling meaning.
Cheyne-Stoking.
Terminal agitation.

It is hard to put into words just how wonderful this book is, but I will try. First of all there is the writing which is just stunning throughout. I am a huge admirer of authors who can use a sentence to express what many others would take a page and Pinborough is such an author. The whole books prose is short and sharp. Told by a daughter who is so drained and tired that there is a sense of distance to it, there is also a huge amount of emotion and atmosphere. I haven’t experienced that duality in a narrative before I don’t think and it is all the more effecting.

Secondly, I thought Pinborough painted a fractured (and ever increasingly so) family wonderfully. Some of our narrators siblings only appear every so often in the book and yet they, and their flaws, are all there fully formed. As are their reactions to the slow dying of their father, some of them facing it bravely and others falling apart or simply wanting to avoid it. The pressure put on the family during such a time and how old wounds or rifts open is done all too realistically.

Having myself cared for my seventy one year old Gran after she was diagnosed with a terminal tumour and been with her as much as I could, including the whole seemingly never-ending week leading up to her death and being with her when she died, I also had a huge personal reaction to this book. It could have gone either way actually, I could have found it too raw or possibly a saccharine version of events depending on how Pinborough wrote it – she goes for raw. It was actually very raw yet also incredibly cathartic. My jaw almost hit the floor on many occasion as I found myself thinking ‘has Sarah been in my head?’ From the mundane aspects of it, the thickening drinks, the never ending nights, the Cheyne-Stoking, to the incredible emotions you go through from disbelief, to the guilt you feel when you love the person so much but you are so tired and so wrought you just want it all to be over, the things you wish you had said. It is all here, along with the grim reality that someone dying is nothing like you could imagine. This book felt like it had been written for me to read right now.

Standing in the kitchen, I wonder at death. You look so sick. You’ve given up. You haven’t drunk anything. I think this should surely be enough to make death take over. I am wrong of course. You have so much more dying to do yet. You have to become so much less before you go. The doctor is, in fact, spot on. One week. Maybe a little less. The body fights, you know?
Now I do.

Pinborough does take one possible risk with the book, and indeed one which I was worried would break the spell of the book for me personally, and that is when she introduces something ‘other’ and fantastical into the text. That said people who have read much of her work probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid to it anyway. I won’t say what it is, as I want you to all go and get this book right now, I will say that I thought it was actually a wonderful addition to the book and came in just when you needed a change from the grim reality of the situation.

As you can probably guess I thought The Language of Dying was a wonderful book for its rawness and emotion. It is a book that I really experienced and one which I am so glad I have read for the cathartic and emotional effects it had on me (I was openly weeping often) and proved that sometimes books are exactly what you need and can show you truths you think no one else quite understands apart from you. I can’t recommend it enough, without question my book of the year.

If I ever meet Sarah she should be forewarned I may give her the biggest hug and weep on her shoulder for writing this book. Anyway… Who else has read The Language of Dying? Which other of Pinborough’s books have you read? (I will be over on No Cloaks Allowed in a week or so discussing her marvellous reworking of three fairytales.) Which books have you read that you felt were written specifically for you at a time when you needed them, and what were they?

6 Comments

Filed under Books of 2013, Quercus Publishing, Review, Sarah Pinborough

6 responses to “The Language of Dying – Sarah Pinborough

  1. This sounds amazing.Lately I find myself in the market for really short fiction. I am consistently amazed by the writing really well-done novellas. I think it must be more difficult to write than a long, sprawling novel where there’s all the room one could want to say whatever one wants.

  2. pam

    as soon as i finished your review, i put it on my wish list. i’ll get it as soon as it’s out here in the states. i have a good friend who is dying (terminal cancer) and like you, simon, and many others – i think it will really hit home. thank you for this recommendation.

  3. Every week I find another book on your blog I want to read! My TBR list will never end!
    Seriously, it sounds fantastic.

  4. Col

    I’ve not read this or anything by Sara Pinborough but I will now. A couple of years ago I came across Justine Picardie’s wonderful portrayal of grieving, “If The Spirit Moves You” at a particular time in my life – it had a very similar effect for me to what you describe above.

  5. Frenchie Caro

    A beautiful post about a book (and an author, I’m also interested in her fairy tale retellings as I like those) I’m adding on my list !

    The last time I felt as if a writer had been into my head was when I read “The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath a couple years ago. I was 28 at the time but Esther, the narrator, is 19 and goes through things I myself experienced when I was the same age. It was a very intense reading for me, I cried a lot, but I felt as if somebody in this world had finally understood me and it was wonderful.

    Well, “The Bell Jar” is a wonderful novel anyway🙂 !

  6. Pingback: Books of 2013; Part II | Savidge Reads

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