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.

4 thoughts on “The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

  1. Finally read them both! Firstly, I really enjoyed The Language of Dying. I hadn’t read any Sarah Pinborough before and am keen to start on her other books, especially if there’s more in them akin to her conjuring of the beast. The ease with which she does it is startling, giving such pungent, snorting, fantastical body to that sense of something inhumanly wild within us, that is us, but is also beyond us (or so I chose to read it). Her quietly dropping it in amongst a straight and moving tale of a daughter nursing her father makes my soul beam. I would have liked a different ending too, but can’t really say why without revealing it.

    I can’t decide about the ending to A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. That sort of climax usually makes me feel cheated and impatient, but I think I like it here for how it stays faithful to the book’s momentum and, I suppose, its title. Also, it’s so beautifully rendered in the final passages, the voice so convincing, I feel a little churlish wishing them away. I’d love to know what further confrontations you would have liked to see as I share your frustrations with the girl’s patterns of behaviour.

    I agree about the progression of language: I found myself expecting it to develop as the narrator ages. There were moments I wondered if it was still adding anything to the story. However, they were only moments and, though I’m embarrassed to admit this, it was the relentlessly suffocating, can’t-get-a-foothold atmosphere of the narrator’s interior life that contributed to my passing out on a train. There were other factors obviously (I probably wouldn’t have keeled over reading it at home after a meal and in robust health), but it was definitely triggered by a scene of inescapable violence (and I’m not usually squeamish). Whilst being overwhelmed by bouts of sweaty nausea isn’t generally what I look for from my reading, it’s testament to Eimear McBride’s use of language that I was.

    Awarding prizes to novels always seems a faintly ludicrous exercise in comparing the incomparable, but since novels don’t exist in isolation – they bump against and nudge others along – I think there is real value in A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing winning the Bailey’s. Although the book isn’t strictly speaking ground-breaking (or inherently more deserving than others), it is an extremely ambitious, difficult and provoking piece of work. In the light of today’s (probably age-old) gripes about publishers playing it safe, it’s good to see such a tricky and uncompromising novel get the press.

    Have you read The Riders by Tim Winton? I can’t remember huge amounts about it except that I really liked how he includes a barely acknowledged supernatural/mythical element at the beginning and end. Also I feel compelled for some reason to suggest to you The Woman and the Ape by Peter Hoeg.

    • Great comments – thank you! Your suggestions are intriguing, I will add them to my list.

      I will have to think back to what other confrontations I would have liked in A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. I suppose the frustrating part about reading so many books in succession is that they quickly become something I read a long time ago. I just felt that a character so willing to take pain out on herself, so willing to be disruptive, could perhaps have forced some more truths into the open…

      I completely agree with you about awards. I see that they draw attention to novels and certainly it’s good to get more people reading, but I sometimes feel awards don’t take enough risks. They seem to opt for safe a little too often and I haven’t yet figured out why. Maybe this year’s Guardian First Novel Award will be a good one, though I was sad to see that they won’t allow Heidi James’ novel Wounding to join the fray.

      Yes, Sarah Pinborough is impressive isn’t she? Discovering her work has been one of the best things about this blog.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      • I wonder if awards suffer from the curse of committees. The more people required to agree on something, the more innocuous it will be. Perhaps they should have an anti-prize for the novel causing most dissension on the panel!

  2. Pingback: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough | Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone

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