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Review: The Language of Dying - Sarah Pinborough

Genre: Literary Fiction, Magical Realism Published: Jo Fletcher Books, 2013 (Originally published 2009) My Rating: 3/5 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, slowing creating an unwilling meaning."

The Language of Dying is one of those novels I feel a little bad about not liking more. It’s a novella that takes place over the span of a few hours, as a woman wakes by the bed of her dying father and muses over the time leading up to this moment. It’s quite a step away from Sarah Pinborough’s normal work in the thriller/mystery genre and just feels somewhat more personal to the author herself. I couldn’t tell you if this is autobiographical, but when an author writes such a personal novella outside of their usual brand, that is automatically where my mind goes. This makes me feel even worse for not particularly liking this novella. If you know me, you might know I have a special place in my heart for books that deal with grief, before, after, or surrounding the death of a loved one. Because of that, I read and have read a lot of those. Having so much material for comparison has made me (perhaps hyper-)critical of the entire genre, making it quite hard for a new book to blow me away. That was exactly the case here: The Language of Dying is a true and honest description of one woman’s experience, but it did nothing to differentiate itself from the other books on the topic.

What I look for in books like this are (grossly simplified) 2 things: 1. A feeling of recognition: thinking, “yes, that was what it felt like to me”, or “I can see how it would feel like that”. The ability of an author to put into words a deeply personal experience you had. Maybe it was an abstract, undefinable feeling, that you only recognized when you read it on the page. Maybe it was something you were able to describe, but didn’t know other people felt too. The Language of Dying does deliver on this front. 2. This may sound a little vague, but: the feeling that you’ve gained something from revisiting that experience via the book you just read. That you’ve perhaps gained a new perspective, realized something new or even just felt a little more understood, or less alone than you did before. This is what lacked in The Language of Dying for me. Everything I read in here, I’ve read before in one way or another, so nothing was quite unique or new enough to bring that for me. The one aspect with which The Language of Dying tries to set itself apart from others is the use of a small element of magical realism. Potentially, this is something I could very much enjoy, but in this case, I didn’t feel it fit the story. Its appearance felt like an afterthought, not yet completely woven into the fabric of the story, and therefore fell a little flat for me.

All in all: an okay read for me. I commend Sarah Pinborough for stepping outside her comfort zone with this title, and I do feel this is something that could potentially be very meaningful to some people. It unfortunately just didn’t happen to be for me.

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