A novella that packs the emotional punch of a full-length novel, Sarah Pinborough’s The Language of Dying (2009) stealthily moves from an innocuous beginning to a stunning conclusion in the spare space of less than 150 pages. This work was nominated for a 2009 Shirley Jackson award and won a British Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 2010, and it’s obvious why: Pinborough writes beautifully and honestly about the complicated process of saying good-bye to a loved one, which would have been compelling material on its own, but the underlying current of potential madness and the repeated visits of a menacing force of nature slowly shift the mundane into the surreal.
As a woman prepares for her ailing father’s inevitable death, she ruminates on certain events leading up to these fragile last days, weighing her present-day activities like making endless kettles of tea and gently dabbing her father’s mouth with pineapple juice to ward off dehydration against childhood memories of staring out her bedroom window at night, waiting for a nameless and impossible presence to reveal itself, as it has on certain other occasions in her past. Her adult siblings have all come to see their father and gone, unable to bear the weight of his too-slow fading from health in addition to their own problems. Their individual inabilities to face the truth — not just in this instance, but in general day-to-day life — manifest in different ways, but at the core is a shared need to escape reality.
Pinborough pairs the narrator’s detachment from her surroundings with sharp, clear details that stick out from the text like thorns: the gritty texture of chocolate biscuits, the smell and color of her father’s forcibly ejected saliva, the color of blood as it spreads across a pristine carpet. The interactions between the narrator and her four siblings, by turns sympathetic and fractious, powerfully evoked real families as they attempt to come to grips with the loss of a loved one, whether it’s impending or recently-occurred.
The Language of Dying is a beautifully crafted, resonant novella, perfectly capturing the horror of watching a person waste away and the guilt of wishing they would hurry up and die. The potentially supernatural element is well-incorporated and leaves the reader in suspense, hinting at the narrator’s mental state and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions about this peculiar family and the thing that lurks just beyond their house. It’s a masterful piece of short fiction, and horror fans would do well to add The Language of Dying to their must-read lists. Jo Fletcher Books released new hardback and Kindle editions today.