The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough
“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.”
Sarah Pinborough’s The Language of Dying is a powerful and harrowing novella that takes an unflinching look at mortality. The story follows a woman who is looking after her terminally ill father. As her father enters the final stages of dying, her siblings come together to see him one last time, and she finds herself haunted by a creature that has appeared to her in times of crisis to offer a potential way out. Haunting and personal, The Language of Dying foregoes fantastical or speculative elements for the most part, instead focusing on the trauma and emotions of its characters, as the bringing together of her family allows the unnamed narrator to look back on their childhood and the events that have shaped their lives since they have drifted apart. The end result is a book quite unlike any other, a heartfelt and sober reflection on what it means to live and what it means to die.
One of the ways in which fiction is useful is that it allows us to confront painful truths about life, such as death, in a safe environment. For all that death in fantasy fiction can be cheap, with characters resurrected or surviving events that should be fatal, fantasy can and does deal with death. From the voyage to the Grey Havens at the end of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings teaching about acceptance of mortality, through to the many bloody, unfair and unexpected deaths that are part of the fabric of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, to Terry Pratchett’s personified Death in the Discworld books allowing us to talk back to death and maybe begin to understand it and our relationship to it better. The genre has a long and rich history of helping us confront our own mortality. However The Language of Dying is something different. For all that fictional deaths may be gory, and that the authors may very skilfully explore the feelings of loss and the process of grieving in the surviving characters, fiction tends to shy away from portraying the messiness and loss of dignity of the end of a life, and all the complicated emotions experienced by their loved ones as they watch them go through this process.
The Language of Dying portrays exactly this, with simple, heart-breaking clarity. The narrator’s father, a strong man with a forceful personality, has faced his illness and death with stoicism and dignity, but here at the end his body is rotting away from the disease. Confined to bed, drifting in and out of consciousness thanks to the painkillers, coughing up sputum, subject to convulsions, needing to be bathed and helped to use the toilet – Pinborough is honest and unsparing in the details of his physical decline. And these are important things to acknowledge, that the process of dying is painful, and that these are the responsibilities of the carer.
As her father spends less and less time conscious or cogent, the narrator finds herself remembering her life with this energetic man who raised her dysfunctional family after her mother left. His character and personality, the different twists and turns his life took right up through to the months she has spent in the house she grew up in looking after him as he got more and more ill. Although the body of her father is still clinging to life, she is already beginning the process of grieving.
The arrival of the narrator’s siblings causes her to expand her reflections to include her siblings’ lives and her own life. In this way The Language of Dying is also about life, and about family. The family in the book has its share of dysfunction, as any family has. There’s Paul, the charismatic yet hollow older brother; Penny, the optimistic glowing sister unable to face life’s darkness; and the twins, Simon the junkie and Davey the paranoid schizophrenic. The narrator herself has emerged from an abusive relationship which culminated in her husband pushing her down the stairs whilst pregnant, killing the baby and leaving her infertile. The narrator compares them all now, each broken in their own particular way by the trials of life, with their young childhood selves.
The book offers some harsh truths about life as much as death, that sometimes life is cruel and brutal, and that what we must then do is pick up the pieces and try to move on with what we have left. Pinborough also explores how fragile the bonds of family can sometimes be. Their father’s death brings all these characters together, to remind them who they were and where they come from, however there’s no sense they necessarily have a future in each other’s lives. The situation brings out the best in some of them – Davey washing his father and helping him use the toilet to give him some dignity and so that the narrator can change the sheets on his bed is both surprising and moving – however the book does not shy away from showing how these situations can bring out the selfish side in people. One by one, with greater or lesser degrees of selfishness, the siblings make their excuses and leave, unable to confront their father’s death in the way that the narrator has had to do for months whilst looking after him.
Part of what makes The Language of Dying so powerful is that this willingness to explore our discomfort around death extends to the narrator as well. Hers is a different kind of discomfort from that of her siblings, who don’t want to get too close to it. She has been looking after her father as he has gone from being in full health right down to the end. She has had to learn this secret knowledge from the nurses about what exactly happens to a body as it dies, which is something that we will all have to learn someday but want to avoid having to think about. She is torn between missing the man that her father was, who in many ways is gone from her already, and the desire for her father’s pain and suffering to finally be at an end.
The space they are all caught in at the house is this liminal space, trapped between two different and utterly separate states. Until her father finishes the process of dying she cannot leave it. However it does allow her to connect back to the moments of her past life where she was also strung between two opposing states, one finishing and one beginning. And it does give her perhaps her final chance to confront the creature that has been following her through these spaces.