On the surface, the “language” of The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough refers to the terminology used by the hospice nurses taking care of the main character’s father—terms such as “cheyne-stoking” and “terminal agitation.” But there are other languages of dying used by the main characters throughout the book. The most prevalent is the language between the main character and her four siblings as they try to cope with the impending death as the family falls apart—language that is both spoken and unspoken. There is also the language between the protagonist and her father, primarily unspoken.
As the father nears the end of his life, the main character’s siblings arrive to the house, bring their baggage with them. First comes Penny, who for a long time couldn’t accept her father’s impending death as a result of her desire to make life as easy as possible, including the avoidance of conflict. Then comes to the two youngest, twins, Davy “the paranoid schizophrenic” and Simon “the junkie.” Finally the oldest brother Paul arrives. Paul shares Penny’s easy nature but his life is more out of control, alternating between successful business ventures and having to go into hiding—either from debt collectors or responsibility. (The main character, the middle child, remains unnamed throughout the story as does the father.)
As Paul is the last to arrive he is also the first to go, sparking rage from the main character. The rest leave, first Davy out of spite and then the other two, out of desperation. Finally this leaves the main character alone in the house with her father again, as she’s his primary care giver and the closest to him.
The main character hardly presents herself as normal, occasionally suffering from what she calls “drifts” which result in her shutting out the outside world. When she bursts into a fit of rage against Paul as he’s leaving, she remembers only the anger but not a word that she said. Even the prose implies a certain sense of anguish, taking the form of first person in the present tense but addressing the father in the second person. Thus, the character is giving the narrative in real-time to her father, even if he isn’t there—including during the flashback sequences. The reader then feels like an intruder, hearing these private thoughts that only the father is supposed to hear.
One of the most prominent images in the book is that of a frightening-looking black unicorn which appears whenever the main character loses someone: when her mother leaves the family when she’s a child, when her unborn child dies while still in the womb (and, perhaps, when she divorces the abusive husband that caused the child’s death), and once at the end of the book. The unicorn is horrifying:
Its body is large, like a horse but more solid—without the elegance but with twice the power. I can see thick sinews bunch along its long neck as it raises its head gain, glaring at me. A black horn grows twisted from between its eyes, a thick, deformed calloused thing, a tree root erupting from the earthy ground of its forehead, the matt texture oppositional to the sweaty shine on its dark hide.
But she is drawn to it, chasing after it as it runs off into the night. She constantly stares out the window throughout her life, hoping to find it waiting for her, finally letting her ride it away.
The prose of the book is elaborate but not “flowery” nor is it over-written. Its melodramatic descriptions of even the most mundane aspects of life gives the sense of the main character’s attempts to make sense out of the dreariness of her life. Only once she can finally let go of all that drags her down can she feel free and ride that unicorn. At just under 130 pages not a word is wasted in this novella. A lot of backstory is packed in as the main narrative only takes place over a few days.
As someone who lost a parent due to a long illness, there is much I can relate to in this book: the presence of hospice workers and doctors, the stress, the disconnect form the outside world as for other people life carries on normally. Fortunately, I didn’t have a lot of the other problems that the main character faced, such as the depression (that came later, and only temporarily) and my family has not drifted apart. But the book still felt familiar in a way that it all felt normal. But, as the book points out, even normalcy can feel ridiculous at times: “I guess sometimes you have to hide from the world to see it properly.”