When the folks at Jo Fletcher books approached me to inquire if I'd be interested in reviewing Sarah Pinborough's The Language of Dying, there was something about the novella's blurb that intrigued me and I accepted to give it a shot. I wasn't aware that this was the reissue of a work dating from 2009, nor did I expect such an emotionally charged read. It's great to see such a beautifully written novella being re-released so it can be appreciated by new readers.
Chances are that this work will resonate deeply with people unfortunate enough to have had to go through the dying days of a loved one. I've lost four family members to various types of cancer and The Language of Dying brought me back to those dismal episodes of my life. The author perfectly captured the sadness and helplessness underlying such ordeals, and it was impossible for me not to relate to what the narrator was going through.
Here's the blurb:
In this emotionally gripping, genre-defying novella from Sarah Pinborough, a woman sits at her father's bedside, watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters--she is the middle child of five--have all turned up over the past week to pay their last respects. Each is traumatized in his or her own way, and the bonds that unite them to each other are fragile--as fragile perhaps as the old man's health. With her siblings all gone, back to their self-obsessed lives, she is now alone with the faltering wreck of her father's cancer-ridden body. It is always at times like this when it--the dark and nameless, the impossible, presence that lingers along the fringes of the dark fields beyond the house--comes calling. As the clock ticks away in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her, a reunion she both dreads and aches for...
The tale is told from the first person perspective of the middle child of five siblings. The woman watches her father waste away, day after day after day. We get a few flashback scenes showing her father's degrading health and how everything gradually deteriorated and he ended up on his deathbed. Pinborough was able to convey how, regardless of the heartbreaking melancholy of such moments, at times when your thoughts are brought back down memory lane humor finds a way to resurface and make you laugh as you recall the good and happy times you shared with that loved one.
The narrator is still going through the aftermath of a failed marriage, and now she must deal with being reunited with her siblings as they return to pay their final respects to their dying father. Problem is, they form a very dysfunctional family, one that might be torn asunder by the death of their parent. The author managed to weave each sibling's backstory into the narrative and demonstrate just how stressful this reunion will be and the sort of toll the imminent death of their father will have on each of them.
There is a slight magical realism aspect to this novella, but in my opinion it was unnecessary and doesn't bring much to the tale. In a way, it's almost detrimental to the story. This could have been a contemporary fiction work that packs a powerful emotional punch, and the absence of the "magical" element would have taken nothing away from The Language of Dying. But this is a very minor complaint, one that won't prevent anyone from enjoying this amazing novella. As a matter of fact, the narrator and her family's plight and grief draw you in so profoundly that you all but forget about the magical realism label.
Beautiful, thoughtful, sorrowful, The Language of Dying pulls on the heartstrings and makes quite an impression. Highly recommended.