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Multi-Book Review


The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough
Book Name: The Language of Dying
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Publisher(s): Jo Fletcher Books
Formatt: Hardback, Ebook
Genre(s): Mainstream, Fantasy Lite, SFF
Release Date: December 2013 (UK)

Sarah-PinbroughIn my opinion, Sarah Pinborough is one of the UK’s most talented authors writing in the fantasy genre today. Not only does Sarah release an incredible amount of books per year (I believe she has hit double figures since 2010; so more than 3 a year since then), but her work is so diverse that what you experience within one book will be completely different from the next and that’s a truly rare talent.

The Language of Dying isn’t a book that I’d typically go out and look for. There are no wizards, a distinct lack of dragons, and swords are never wielded. And yet this book is about a battle, one that pits our protagonist against man’s greatest foe, a foe so stealthy, so devious that it can creep up on any of us or, as in this book, any loved one at any time.

The book begins with our unnamed protagonist sitting beside her father’s bed considering how weak he has become in the short time since they found out lung Cancer had invaded his body. The book is written in first person, present tense and as if our protagonist was narrating her thoughts and feelings to her unconscious father (addressing the reader as ‘you’); the way I came to think of it was as though she is writing a letter to him to read when he reaches the afterlife.

unicornIt is instantly apparent that the unnamed character ‘writing this letter’ is lonely in the sense that she feels as though no one is built quite like her. As the middle child of her father’s five, she has always felt the odd one out at home as well as out in society and so rather than form a close bond with any of her siblings, she grew closest to her father and has been the one living with him whilst his health deteriorated. As much as she genuinely wants to care for her father though, something else, something mysterious drew her back to this house and meant that when her father discussed selling it years ago she had little option but to buy it…

She saw ‘the thing’ outside the window when she was just a child. Something dark, something that no human had ever recorded seeing before and yet that obviously belonged to nature:

I am not sure whether it is beautiful or ugly, but I know that it’s wonderful. And I know that it’s waiting for me. One of my hands rises to the cold glass, as if by touching I can reach the beast below. The lonely emptiness inside me fill up with something warm and thick. This creature and I belong together. I know it and so does he.

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 again, glaring at me. A black horn grows twisted from between its eye, 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. I stare at it and our souls meet. It is power and anger and beauty and nature rolled into something other-worldly, waging a war with the night on its four thick hooves.

As close as our main character feels to this creature, as distant she feels from her siblings. As each of them begins to arrive to her and her father’s house to see him and say their goodbyes, it all feels very awkward. There is a feeling that none of them really wants to be there and that their attendance is is a required responsibility rather than a compassionate desire to say goodbye. As a result it quickly becomes difficult to justifiably suggest that they will see each other again after their father’s passing. And, if that is the case, what does that mean for our protagonist? Where does she belong without any friends and without any family?

These feelings give rise to a kind of subplot as, despite remaining in present tense, we head into the past and listen to our protagonist explore the relationship she has with the rest of her family and try to workout where it went wrong, whether it could ever be put right and why it is she does not seem to fit into any kind of picture of a family unit she is able to form. One of the hardest scenes for me came about mid-way into the book where the character moves from examining the dynamics of her family to reflecting on her own life and at the points of her life that have led her to almost completely withdraw from society. I say this a lot, but one of my favourite things as a reader is experiencing the thoughts, feelings and, therefore, life of another being and Sarah achieves this masterfully.


I have no doubt that this book draws a huge amount on personal experience for the emotion poured into this novel does not always appear to be of the fictional variety. (Note: although I intend to ask Sarah about this in an upcoming interview, I do not wish to delve into how much is sourced from her real life for the purpose of this review). The result is that some passages in the book do make for hard reading and unlike a fantasy novel it is unlikely you are going to find yourself smiling or buzzing with excitement upon closing the pages. Indeed, for me it was more quiet contemplation.

Language-of-Dying-JFBDrifting from the story and to the physical book itself: I was surprised, when I received the book, to see just how short it is. The UK version is about 120 pages (although it was previously published as a limited edition book of about 85 pages too). As such it is likely that you will finish it relatively quickly, maybe within about three days to a week for a normal reader. That said, if you are capable of judging a book by an equation beyond £/words, with something like £/what it leaves you with, for example, you will find you receive far more than your money’s worth. Additionally, those lovely people at Jo Fletcher Books (one of my favourite publishing houses for taking risks and pushing the genre in new directions) have complimented Sarah’s beautiful prose with an absolutely stunning hardback edition that you will be showing off to your friends and threatening them with a great deal of pain should they have damaged it upon return of any agreed loan.

If I put my English Lit hat on for a moment, I’d say that there are traces of poets such as T.S. Eliot within this novel. Eliot was fascinated with the conscious experience of human beings as individuals and the way that time is experienced in a unique way by each of us. Sarah’s prose could quite easily be called poetic, but please add to that fluent, eloquent and beautiful too. I think the key to this novel’s success is the juxtaposition of the beautiful prose and the heart-breaking inevitability of they story. The contrast of beauty and despair is one that makes this book powerful and unforgettable. They say the best works of literature are those that make you see the World in a new way. Upon completion of this novella I was left looking forward to seeing my family at Christmas, remembering that it is important I make the most of them and, as morbid as it may sound, understanding that they will not be around forever.



  1. Avatar Alister says:

    Great review, Marc – I’ll put aside some of my Christmas money for this one 🙂
    Looking forward to the interview with Sarah.

  2. Avatar C. says:

    You drew me in with this review, even though I couldn’t finish it for other reasons, and I now going to put this my TBR list. The writing and book sounds like something I would definitely read, however, my sister passed away suddenly earlier this year and I am not at a place where I can read this yet. Having said that, what I was able to read of the review, makes me want to see if there is something else by this author that I can try sooner rather than later.

  3. Avatar Makkarii says:

    Great review, I’m very excited to check this book out, it’s definitely going on my list.

  4. […] month I reviewed The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough. Today we have the privilege of talking to the author herself about the book, […]

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