Friday Reads: The Language of the Dying

This isn’t so much a Friday Read as a Friday ReRead.

A little while ago Ian Rankin was talking about novels and authors he’s recently discovered and mentioned Sarah Pinborough and The Language of the Dying, saying ‘It’s about a father who’s dying; his grown-up kids get back together at the house to wait for him to die, but there’s all kinds of weird secrets and weird stuff happening, just on the periphery. I’m really enjoying it, it’s really well written.’ His words brought Pinborough’s novella back to mind, and prompted me to pick it up again.

In fact, the word that really prompted me to pick it up again was ‘enjoying’. Because I remembered a lot of things about reading The Language of Dying, among them a sense of kinship and heart-ache, echoes of old pains, a compulsion to read on. There’s a sense of the enduring yet fragile nature of family and relationships, of the kind unhelpfulness of strangers, and of the way in which those closest to us can have no idea what were actually feeling. The themes are powerful: death, abuse, self-abuse (whether food, alcohol, drugs or emotional), depression, balanced with freedom, self-knowledge and catharsis. And while there is a quiet kind of enjoyment to this sort of a read, I think it’s better characterised as broken glass reading: exquisitely sharp in places, smooth and seamless in others, and made up of pieces that fit together so perfectly you can’t always see the join – but whose edges can still shift and grate against one another when you least expect it.

It’s very sharply observed and very simply written, and both of those are an art in themselves. Saying what you mean is a skill that’s difficult to master. Saying it about a topic as difficult as the death of a loved one is harder still . . . and saying it in such a way that it draws on the reader’s experiences while telling a story is something very special indeed.

. . . I don’t think I enjoy reading The Language of the Dying. I think I connect with it, am moved by it, and am a little in awe of it. I think I have to pause while reading it to turn moments or ideas over in my mind absorb them. I think there are scenes I had to sleep on before I continued reading – and I think I’m liable to reread this novella again and again. Not for enjoyment, but because it captures something unspoken about human experience, and that manages to be painful and comforting and compelling all at the same time.

I can’t recommend this novella highly enough.