“People talk a lot when someone is dying. They talk as if the person is already dead. Maybe it’s the first step of the healing process for those inevitably left behind. And maybe you have already started the process by pulling a few steps away from us. The frail used-to-be man in the bed upstairs is not our father. You were so much more than that.” (8)
Sarah Pinborough’s The Language of Dying(Quercus, 2016) is a novella about five adults who gather at their childhood home as their father reaches the final stages of a cancer that will kill him. Pinborough’s narrator uses plain language, and that language is the highlight of the book. At 130 pages, the book is sparse but packed with meaning and gives a glimpse of characters like an impressionist painting. It is not a detailed portrayal of the characters but an impression of them as people, filtered through the narrator.
The story is told from the perspective of the family’s middle child, who has returned home first to recover from an abusive relationship, then to care for her dying father. Her siblings join her as their father’s life will soon end. The family now consists of the dying father and his five children: Paul, Penny, the narrator, Davey, and Simon. It’s a family of damaged people who cope in different ways. We read the narrator’s thoughts and she speaks in her mind as though she is speaking to her father. It’s a personal and conversational style that gives us her perspective without contrivances. Her reliability as the person closest to the situation (apart from the father) also makes her a trustworthy perspective at the beginning of the story: “I take a deep breath of the air that has been just mine and yours for months. It’s been two days since you last smoked a cigarette, but I imagine the lingering tobacco scent filling me up and it gives me the confidence to face the outside. How Penny came to be part of the outside, I’m not quite sure” (5-6). This reliability becomes strained as the story progresses and the stress of caring for her father while dealing with her siblings becomes more difficult for her to handle: “I’m crying as I change the stained sheets and I don’t know who for. Maybe for all of us. Maybe just for me. There is a worm in my head that whispers that it isn’t only Paul who doesn’t think other people feel and think and care. And maybe the worm is right” (113).
The narrator is aware that her father’s death will change the family, and one of the key elements of the story is her balance between the intensity of the moments (good and bad) and knowing that the moments will end. Being so focused on time, death, and change, she also compares how those relationships used to be and how they have changed or will change irrevocably.
As impressionistic as the book is, we’re constrained by the narrator’s anxieties and memories, her love, envy, sorrow, sadness, and happiness. There’s enough there to suggest deeper lives than we see. So much so that the unicorn might be the least interesting part of the story.
The one part of the book that I found disappointing is the ending. I won’t say what it is, but after the first 120 pages, I expected a more impactful end. It’s a bit clichéd and a
This book review was written by Dat Tran (guest blogger). He grew up in Nepean, Ontario. In grade 10, he wrote a book report on the fate of the royal family of Troy, and Greek tragedy and mythology became his gateway into literature, philosophy, and history. He is not good at math.