Book Review

Sarah Pinborough’s THE LANGUAGE OF DYING

Pinborough, Sarah - The Language of Dying - COVER.jpgTitle: The Language of Dying
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Format: eBook, courtesy of NetGalley and Quercus (US)
Start Date: November 27, 2016
End Date: December 7, 2016
Rating: 3 stars

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, first published in 2009, told the story of an unnamed narrator as she, with her siblings, coped with her father’s slow death. The middle child of five, she had moved home to take care of her ailing father. As he creeps closer to the end, her siblings come home so they can all deal with the language of dying in their own, dysfunctional ways.

I like the premise of this story. It is at once as endearing as it is emotionally wrenching. The author writes in such a way to make the reader feel encapsulated in this experience. As we learn more about the narrator, her siblings, and the cracks in her family, we get a glimpse into this troubling time in their lives.

Although I agree with the statement that it was “a beautiful story, honestly told” – as quoted by Neil Gaiman on the cover – there was also some disconnect to the story. It stems from the fact that the narrator herself is unreliable, though it is also due in part to its inherent lack of details, but more on that later.

We establish the unreliability of the narrator from the beginning. Not only are her emotions roiling inside her as she attempts to come to terms with what is going on around her, but at the same time, she also has to deal with the siblings that have always seemed so much more self-centered than her coming home to say their goodbyes to the father they didn’t help her care for.

The characters themselves, although initially seeming to be complex, ended up being more one-dimensional.

Paul, the oldest, is charismatic and funny, yet is never stable in life. He seeks solace in status, and when it is unattainable, hides away from the world until it becomes easier. Penny, the second oldest, is described by her sister as having a special “glow” to her. She, in life, likes things to be easy and tries to make it easier for others. When she gets to the house, the narrator remarks, “She needs me to take the hard for her and make it easy.” Davey and Simon are the twins, with their own share of problems. Davey is a paranoid schizophrenic and Simon is a junkie. And somewhere between them is the narrator:

…[T]he middle child. The pivot, the hinge between the normal of Paul and Penny and the strange, mad world of the boys; sometimes tilting this way and sometimes that. In both camps and yet neither.

However, this is really the only glimpse that we get of any of the characters. We do get a little information about the dying father, the mother who abandoned them, and the narrator’s abusive husband. I get it is a short novella, and more about the narrator herself, but I feel like we don’t get the full picture. Maybe that’s that point though?

The language of dying is complex and is different for everyone. It can be made of anger, regret, laughter, despair, or all of these combined. This message was beautiful.

However, there was also a separate aspect to the book. I’m sure it has symbolism, but I guess I didn’t really get it. The narrator mentioned seeing a black unicorn which the narrator had seen at several important junctures in her life: the night her mother left and abandoned them when she was ten, after she moves back home after her devastating marriage when she was twenty-five, and right as her father is on the cusp of dying when she is near forty.

It is perfection to me, not like the white, insipid animal of legends with which it shares its horn – that creature does not exist. This one exists more plainly than I do. It is gnarled and dark and full of passion and I know that if I could bury my head in that mane it would smell of the earth and sweat and blood.

A unicorn, in general, symbolizes good fortune. In particular, according to one source, dreaming of a black unicorn is indicative of strength and “power to overcome all the barriers that you meet in your way of perfect life.” Although the narrator’s life is far from perfect, the black unicorn could be seen as a projection of the narrator’s inner strength. The fact that the unicorn itself was intangible might even symbolize that the narrator was unable to recognize her own strength in the face of adversity.

But I digress. The story was emotionally potent, even if a bit disconnected, with an added measure of realistic fantasy in the form of a great, black unicorn. Because of the narrator’s unreliability, we don’t know if this unicorn is a merely a dream, the beginnings of mental distress (her brother was a paranoid schizophrenic), or actually there.

Regardless, I feel it reflected the innermost thoughts of a woman going through a devastating time in her life.

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