Novella Review: The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books (US: August 2, 2016)
Length: 144 pages
Sarah Pinborough is the author of a couple of my favorite historical horror novels, Mayhem and Murder in the Dr. Thomas Bond duology about the Jack the Ripper, so when I was offered a chance to review The Language of Dying, I didn’t hesitate. This novella couldn’t have been more different than her other work though, and yet I loved it no less. A beautiful soul-rending song straight from the heart, this tiny little book packs an emotional punch by shifting gears instead to look at the turbulent nature of grief and the profound effects it has on one troubled family.
The story starts with a woman, our unnamed narrator, sitting by her dying father’s bedside waiting for the other members of her family to arrive in order to say goodbye. First to arrive is her older sister Penny, who has always lived a charmed life, but for all her successes still hides behind a façade of materialism that she fears can shatter at any moment. Next come Simon and Davey, the twins, who arrive within half an hour of each other even though they live hundreds of miles apart. The narrator notes this uncanny connection between her younger brothers with a heavy heart, thinking where one twin goes the other will follow, even when their lives are spiraling out of control. The last to show up at the house is Paul, the eldest brother, coming off from another failed business venture or financial debacle. With that, the whole family is under one roof again. The children’s mother, who abandoned them so many years ago, is already gone in every sense of the word.
But deep in her heart, our narrator is secretly hoping for one final visitor. Only twice in her life has she seen him; the first time when she was ten, outside her window the night her mother left them all behind, and the second when she was twenty-five, after another painful loss in her life. She can tell no one what she saw, because she’s not even sure what she saw was real. But still, she believes, and now, she waits.
This is a hard book to categorize. Despite its label as a fantasy novella, the ties that bind the story to the genre are light and ambiguous. However, it’s the themes that really come through: pain, grief, death, loss. Family, support, togetherness, love. Death will come for us all in time, and when it happens the living are left to struggle with the loss. But sometimes the grieving process actually starts well before the person dies, as this story shows. For months, the narrator had known that the cancer would kill her father, but it is in the final days, watching him waste away while feeling helpless to stop his pain, that’s when she starts to fall apart. When the rest of the siblings arrive though, their presence and their shared memories offer some comfort. Her brothers and her sister might not be perfect—some of them surprise her, while others disappoint her—but regardless, in them she finds a new source of strength.
I don’t know if I could have read this book if someone close to me was dying, or if I’d just experienced a recent loss of a loved one. I’m positive it would have broken me. I’ve never seen a more transparent, open and honest portrayal about the agony of confronting the inevitable, of letting go of a dearly beloved, and something tells me this is a personal tale for the author. The style in which it was written, narrated by the protagonist in present tense and in the first person but addressing her dying father as “you”, made this book even more moving and intimate. Her memories of her own past are presented as if she is sharing those painful moments directly with him, with us.
Ultimately, it’s this closeness that defines the sweet poignancy of this beautifully crafted novella. The Language of Dying is an astonishingly good read, simple in its approach, but thoughtful and heartbreaking in its execution. It’s not an easy book to read, but you will be glad you did.
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Wendy’s review of The Language of Dying