The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

In The Language of Dying an unnamed narrator talks through the last days of her father’s life. She speaks to him of events unfolding around him, of the past, of how she experienced the past. She is generous about his alcohol addiction and his bouts of ambitious enthusiasm for new life experiences. She reassures him, that through the waste of cancer, she can still see him.

All of this is beautifully written. The way that families adhere to their own well-rehearsed patterns and, but for the occasional surprise, act predictably albeit understandably. Like all families, this family has its secrets, its dysfunctions, but it is still a family and regardless of old wounds they cling to each other in the strange intensity of their father’s dying hold over them. The narrator’s observations of her family and their relationships are depicted with the clarity and bias of truth.

Alongside the life of the family, is the story of the narrator herself. At times of extreme stress, beginning with the night her mother abandons her, all of her unexpressed emotion manifests in a creature of darkness, a magical beast both fierce and forlorn, calling to her to lead some different wild life alongside its gnarled, mystical, muscular being. Whether it springs from the fiery bubblings of her own molten emotion, whether it is a psychotic vision, or whether it exists alongside our reality flitting among the shadows of our lives, we never know, but it breathes down through the narrative with nostrils flared.

Whilst I’m sure that the author does not see these narratives as two halves, it is quite easy to view the book in that way. On the one hand, the precise and painful tale of a father’s passing; on the other, the fantasy of a dark Arcadian alternative to contemporary life. It almost forces a debate about genre fiction. Should there be such clear divisions between what we consider to be literary fiction and what we consider to be fantasy? The living pulse of story will always have routes in the miraculous. But I think I would have liked more room for uncertainty in the ending. I won’t tell you why though, because I think this is a book that deserves a wider readership.

Sarah Pinborough’s prose feels almost effortless. She is very well known in the world of horror, fantasy, sci-fi, but she should have wider recognition. There are resonances with Angela Carter amongst others. I would be quite happy to offer The Language of Dying as an alternative candidate for the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction. What makes Eimear McBride’s novel more prize-worthy? Read them both and let’s start a debate!

Next week I’m reading In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahmen. Please do send in suggestions for the following weeks.