Sarah Pinborough is a name that kept bumping up against the periphery of my reading landscape. The odd retweet, some sparring against Stephen Leather in the Great Sock Puppet Scandal of 2012, and finally a wonderful piece about internet persona entitled ‘The thing is, these people think they know you…’.
Ironically, I then pretty much proceeded to do exactly what Pinborough was talking about. Most of the stuff I had seen from Sarah gave me the impression she was a confident, sassy, talented woman of exactly the type that used to intimidate me when I was an geeky, funny-shaped-dice rolling teenager. Clearly I’ve grown up less than I might care to admit. Sarah’s work floated past without me taking much interest. I imagine that in a universe where space and time were a little more flexible, I may have found room to read one of her books, but in this world, though her novels garner much acclaim, they’ve never made it to the pile. Until now.
When the press release landed in my in-box along with a review request, my interest was immediately piqued. The subject matter struck a chord, in part because of similarities with Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, a book which left me in tatters, but also because it chimed with the current situation in my own life. (The beautiful cover art helped tip the balance too.)
Sarah and I are a similar age. As I approached my forties thoughts of death began to weigh more heavily. Firstly I have a family now. It’s a strange effect; by bringing new life into the world, you become sensitive to the fragility of existence. The consequences of death become more frightening.
The Language of Dying is Sarah’s response to the death of her (ex) father in law. My Dad is not dying but he has Parkinson’s and it’s killing the man he was. It’s destroying his marriage to my mother and it’s sending chaotic ripples through the whole family. Pinborough’s slender volume chronicles all this and more.
There are three strands of the novel that struck home. The main one being the indignity of death. The loss of function, the reliance on others. The undoing of body and spirit. Pinborough’s prose is delicate yet devastating. The second strand centres around family. The family in the book is perhaps atypical, nevertheless, their portrayal is most affecting.
I have three boys. They are as close as you could wish for. Yes they fight but they love each other so much. But for how long? The Language of Dying made me face up to the uncomfortable truth, that this may not last for ever. The worry has always been out there. Siblings don’t always get along. The depiction of a disintegrating family is possibly sadder than the death of the father.
Finally, and perhaps the most important facet. The idea that behind our veneer of happiness, anything could be happening. It could be a particularly British trait, but we pass through our lives, interacting with countless people, with little attempt to understand their hopes, their fears or the tragedies they are facing. It’s not just on the Internet that we decide we think we know somebody. Pinborough brings this home in one crushing chapter.
This slender book is a powerful meditation on life, death and the transition from one to the other. It is not happy book. You won’t be buying copies for Christmas presents. You won’t be exclaiming, ‘You have to read this book!’, but you just might press it into the hands of somebody who’s struggling and say, ‘Read this, it may help.’
Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book.