THE LANGUAGE OF DYING by Sarah Pinborough – Review

I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

THE LANGUAGE OF DYING by Sarah Pinborough – ReviewThe Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough
Published by Jo Fletcher Books on August 2 2016
Genres: Adult, Magic realism
Pages: 144
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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The nitty-gritty: A beautifully written and powerful story about death and the inescapable bonds of family.

Most things in life change gradually. Events creep up on you from behind just like the language. You barely notice the beginnings; it’s only when things go terribly wrong that we wipe the sleep from our eyes and wail miserably, “How the hell did that happen?”

This is my first Sarah Pinborough book, and ironically it’s not the type of story she usually writes. But it demonstrates just how good a writer she is, so no matter what the subject matter, I know I’ll be picking up her other books in the future. The Language of Dying is a short novella, but within these pages is a very powerful story about loss in all its many forms. I knew going into it that it was about a woman caring for her dying father, but this story turned out to be about so much more.

The narrator, an unnamed woman who is about to turn forty, cares for her father who has been living with her for the past year, slowly dying of cancer. The story focuses on his last days, as his doctors have told her the end is near. She reluctantly contacts her four siblings and asks them to visit, and as they arrive one by one, we get to know the fraught and volatile family relationships among this group of brothers and sisters. Peter, the eldest, has led a life of womanizing and has had many ups and downs in his high-powered career. Elder sister Penny is the most successful of the bunch, a nurturing mother who can always diffuse the tension in the room and is the most supportive of all the siblings. Young twins Simon and Davey are drug addicts and can barely function, let alone give moral support to their sister.

As they gather together for the last time as a family, the narrator reflects back on her tempestuous life and tries to come to terms with the impending death of her father. And just outside the bedroom window on a country road, a beast who may or may not be real waits for her.

Above all, The Language of Dying is a truthful story. Pinborough takes everything good and bad about being in a family and shines a glaring light on it. I’m sure every reader will see glimpses of their own families and personal relationships in this story: the sister that you love but are insanely jealous of; the brother that took the wrong path in life and there is absolutely nothing you can do to help him; and the echo of a long-departed mother who could have fixed everything if only she hadn’t left her family. And of course, the dying parent who, without meaning to, brings all these people together.

And yes, the descriptions of the terminally ill father are sad and tough to read. During the story, various nurses and home-care professionals visit his bedside and impart medical information to the family with an utter lack of emotion. Anyone who has been through something like this is bound to have an intense emotional reaction to everything that’s happening. Pinborough keeps her tone matter-of-fact when describing the unpleasantness of death, and yet the reader is still emotionally moved.

But far more gut-wrenching to me was the discovery of the narrator’s horrific past and how it’s shaped her into the woman she is now, contemplating life and death at her father’s bedside. She remembers her past in flashbacks that are scattered throughout the story, which give us just enough information to form a picture of a tragic life that could have been avoided. These two elements, the father dying and the narrator’s revelations, made this an emotional and deeply felt story that will stay with me for a long time.

Pinborough’s prose is simple and lovely. She’s the type of writer that doesn’t need lots of words to convey emotion. Despite the small page count, The Language of Dying feels bigger than it is. It’s the rare story that touches on so many topics and does each of them justice, and yet it’s just the right length to convey everything necessary.

There is a magical realism element to the story that gives it a mysterious, otherworldly quality, and as with most magic realism, it leaves the reader wondering whether or not that magic is real. It was just enough for me to classify this as speculative fiction, but honestly, Pinborough could have left those elements out and it still would have been a powerful reading experience.

The ending threw me a bit, and it’s probably the reason I didn’t rate this book higher. Without spoiling it for you, I’ll simply say that it was completely unexpected in every way, and that some readers will like it and some won’t. I’m not sure how I feel about it, other than to say that after some reflection, I think it was the best way to end the story. But was it a satisfying ending? I guess for me it wasn’t, but the fact that I’m still thinking about it, days after finishing this book, makes me think the author did it for a good reason.

You can easily read this story in an hour or two, but I guarantee the emotional resonance will linger long after.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

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Posted August 22, 2016 by Tammy in 4 stars, Reviews / 12 Comments


12 responses to “THE LANGUAGE OF DYING by Sarah Pinborough – Review

    • Tammy

      It is emotional, but I think the other parts of the story besides the depressing parts really make this wonderful. I don’t think you’ll have too hard a time.

  1. Awesome review. This was a hard one to sum up in my opinion. I actually liked the ending because I think a lot of people have felt the way the MC did and wished they could do what she did. I don’t mean that in a bad way and won’t say more since I don’t want to add anything that might spoil this. I mentioned in my review that when I read this, we received word my father-in-law was dying and while it made it somewhat hard to read, it will now always hold a dear place in my heart. I loved this book and am so glad I picked it up!
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    • Tammy

      Yes, I remember your review and thinking that was very strange timing! Hopefully this book helped a bit getting you through that. And I can see your point about the ending, although it felt SO out of character!

  2. I agree the ending felt a little out of place…actually the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the paranormal or “magical realism” element of this book was even necessary, I think when you look at this novella as a whole, that aspect almost feels beside the point. I think the story of this family and their relationships more than holds its own.
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    • Tammy

      That was my thought too, that the story would have been just as good without the paranormal elements. They did add a little something extra, but I wouldn’t have missed them, honestly.

  3. I think this is a great book – so emotional, like you and Mogsy the ending always puzzled me and I wondered if it was supposed to convey some other meaning but could never quite figure out what that was. The thing with SP is she is so very difficult to pin down. This book is so different from Mayhem and Murder and they’re so different from her fairytale retellings – they’re all unique – but the one thing that I love about her work is her writing style.
    Lynn 😀

  4. Sam

    I really love stories with some magical realism in them and the fact that this one is a novella is really attractive to me. However, I think I’ll skip this one for now. I think the descriptions of the father slowly dying might be a little too much for me.
    Sam recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday: Magic BindsMy Profile

  5. Anne C

    Excellent review. The book sounds really emotional but I would have to pass on this. Books with characters who are terminally ill are too much for me since cancer claimed a relative last year and another last month. I would be crying instead of reading. I hate cancer.