The Language of Dying–Sarah Pinborough

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The cover of this book has a lovely gray-scale illustration of a tree on a hill, birds taking flight from its bare branches into the name of the author and, above the name, a prancing unicorn.  At the very top is a quote from Neil Gaiman, “A beautiful story, honestly told.”

I love Neil Gaiman.  I respect him as a storyteller.  His word was enough.  But there was also the subject–a daughter home with her dying father.  The beautiful cover art was frosting on the cake.

The novel is told in first person.  The narrator is a middle daughter–older siblings, brother, sister, younger twin brothers.  The twins are drug addicts in varying states of recovery and addiction.  The sister is a success–beautiful, married with children, solid job, charisma.  The brother is successful, but never feels successful enough and so drifts and disappears from his life and his family for periods of time.  The narrator herself drifts and, at the time of her father’s dying, has bought her childhood home and is doing a bit of hiding out from the world.  She works at the local library and cares for her father.  Her marriage was abusive.  Their mother left them when they were young after years of the children listening to them arguing.  The father coped by drinking.  He smokes and cancer is killing him.

The story revolves around the last days of the father’s dying when the other siblings are summoned home.  The narrator knows this is necessary, but at some level resents their intrusion on the intimacy she and her dad have cultivated in his dying process.  The narrator resents her siblings to varying degrees, but it’s her relationship with her sister that seems most complicated.  When Penny, the successful sister, returns, the women sleep in the same bed and have a warm-fuzzy sleepover complete with giggles while their father continues dying in his room.  Penny calls the brothers.

Pinsborough captures many of the smaller moments in this episode of a family’s life.  How long it takes for each sibling to climb the stairs to see their dying father.  How long they stay.  How they talk to him–or don’t.  How they talk about him–or don’t.  How they try to recapture their childhood relationships–and how they fail.

Pinsborough reveals the relationships first, then begins revealing the narrator’s back story outside of her siblings.  I did not foresee the ending–and it was abrupt.  Perhaps I would have been less surprised had I known that Sarah Pinsborough often writes horror.  Grief is madness and for our narrator that madness has red eyes and hot breath–and it is both an enemy and a friend.  How comforting to see grief as embodied and external,

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance review copy.  The US publication date is August 2, 2016.

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