Sunday 9 February 2014

The Language of Dying

Neil Gaiman loved this so it must be good. Having commented in the previous review that people I had heard of (and admire) liked the book I wonder if other people pay attention to the little soundbites that adorn book covers these days. It can go both ways; if the Daily Mail reviewer thought it was great it would probably go back on the shelf but if the author of a book I particularly loved liked it I confess it might be quite an influencing factor for me. 'The Language of Dying' by Sarah Pinborough had been on my library request list for a while, long enough to have forgotten where I read about it (note to self, try and keep track of who it is that recommends stuff you like). 

I see from her website that Sarah Pinborough writes mostly fantasy and horror. This novella is a subtle blend of real life with this strange other worldly image, presented as childhood imaginings but then reappearing at the climax of the story. It had for me a feeling of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (even though she sees only one animal), a feeling that something momentous and irrevocable is happening. The woman in the story is watching over her dying father, and has collected her siblings so that they may come and say their farewells. As they come and spend this brief time together they seem to take on their old childhood roles and relationships. Abandoned by their mother when young and raised by an alcoholic father there are inevitably going to be a few issues. After an abortive and abusive marriage our unnamed protagonist has come home, and almost resents the intrusion of her siblings into what has become a close and mutually dependent relationship with her father. In the little exchanges and quiet moments Sarah paints a wonderful picture of a family, both its past and present, with all its glaring faults and warm intimacy. 

"The silence breaks my thoughts and I realise that Penny has stopped talking and is looking at me, waiting for an answer. I have no idea what she has said and I know that she knows I've gone in a world of my own, so I just smile and she smiles back. She runs one hand over my head gently, as if the four years between us are still a huge divide and she is still my big sister rather than a woman I once knew. But still, I am happy that she's here. It's a big warm rush coming out of me, like waters breaking and I look at her and think how I have envied her and hated her and avoided her over the years and yet here we are. Sisters again. " (p.18)

This intense scene is from her childhood:

"Now, sitting on numbing ankles, the curtain feels like a shroud around my dying childhood and even in the chill my face gets hotter and hotter, burning me from the inside out. I wish I could cry; I wish Penny would come back from being a teenager and I wish Mum would come back home and put everything back to not-quite-right. Something is building, bubbling in my stomach, flaring into white heat and I don't know if it will explode out of me or whether it will meet with the dark spots at the edge of my vision and make me pass out. I want it to out in words that I don't have. I want it to make sense. To be not-just-mine. And then, as I am about to combust, it appears in the night. Out of nowhere." (p.27-8)

And another from the close present; throughout the story there is no shying away from the fact of his dying, even though she is fighting the idea, and she lurches from these emotions to the practicalities of caring for him:

"I want to run upstairs and shake you awake and force you to tell me. But there isn't enough time for you to tell me everything I want to know and, as well as the drumming of hooves and the ticking clock, I can hear a part of me breaking inside as I take another small step towards accepting your loss. I feel guilty and ashamed. I don't want to let you go.
The nurses come and I watch as they ignore the smell that clings to you and plump your pillows and change your morphine driver. There are two of them. They're the night shift. The graveyard shift. The word makes me shiver as I look at the husk of you. Your hands are twitching and trembling even though you are lost somewhere in sleep or unconsciousness or wherever your mind has taken you.
'Has he got a wash booked in for tomorrow?' The taller nurse is checking the folder.
'No,' I say. 'He didn't want one. I'll ask him in the morning and call through if he's changed his mind.'
She sniffs. 'He should have a wash.'
I don't like her. 'If he wants a wash I'll make sure he gets one. If he doesn't want a wash then I'll make sure he doesn't get one.' " (p.88)

Another, that manages to be beautifully wistful without falling over the edge into mawkish:

"You try to speak but the words don't make sense. They're dry and rasping and confused. I try not to cry. For a second I wish you'd just come back or leave completely. This in-between is no good for anyone. A mistake in nature's plan for us. Better to be hit by a bus or drop out of the sky than this interminable changing. This memory thief. I stroke the wisps of hair across the top of your head. When did they get to be so white? I don't remember. You were always dark when we were children. Dark hair, dark eyes and dark, swarthy skin. I sigh." (p.102)

There is a stark contrast drawn between the woman and her siblings who cannot, or do not want to, deal with the approaching death, who will not be there for the close. A very brief book, another that would definitely benefit from reading in one sitting, to allow yourself to get absorbed by the feeling of waiting without anticipation. Take an afternoon, it would not be wasted.

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