The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

I stumbled on The Language of Dying at Half Price Books and put it on a list of books I would like to read.  I was really taken by one particular blurb:

“A beautiful story, honestly told.”—Neil Gaiman

Isn’t that what every reader is looking for?

Well, I finally managed to request it from the library and read it.

It is an artful yet rather depressing novella about a family dealing with the pending death of their father. The grief brings out both love and a difficult past. The tension ratchets up the conflicts and relationships.

I felt like it was well done, but hard to say you “enjoy” a book like this.

The Kirkus review captures some of the problems:

Through flashbacks, Pinborough reveals important parts of the family’s history: the day their mother left, the day one of the twins began doing drugs, the abusive former marriage of the narrator. But this back story proves to be the book’s weakness; it offers little in terms of actual perspective on the characters and instead feels somewhat clichéd. Perhaps this is the point: this family could represent, and does represent, all of us as we deal with death. But at the same time the author has created these pasts for the characters for a reason, and they could have been more unusual. The other weakness is the writing itself: the sentences lack true lyricism, and the use of second-person narration is jarring. The one thing that elevates it is the strange and inexplicable vision that awaits the narrator at the moment of her father’s death. She waits to revisit something she has seen before at times of great emotional change, and the meaning of that vision, while ambiguous, is also full of life, violence, and wild beauty.

Moments of strange fantasy make this meditation on loss both unexpected and meaningful.

I found the writing moody and atmospheric but, yeah, there did seem to be an element of the cliche in there too. But the mix of fantasy and harsh reality, combined with family dynamics, makes it a worthwhile short read.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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