Sarah Pinborough is a chameleon writer, a renaissance woman even, who can turn her hand to a varied range of genres. In her (almost) 10-year publishing career she has written standalone horror novels with titles including The Reckoning and Breeding Ground; the Dog-Faced Gods urban fantasy trilogy; a young adult fantasy series (under the pen name Sarah Silverwood) and a brace of original novels based on the Doctor Who spin-off TV series Torchwood, as well as writing for the TV crime show New Tricks.
This past year has been a bumper one for Pinborough, and one that perhaps best showcases her versatility: a series of three raunchy feminist retellings of classic fairytales, a Victorian supernatural crime thriller, Mayhem, and now, closing the year, The Language of Dying.
If any novel of Pinborough’s is evidence of her refusal to be pigeonholed in a literary era which likes to put an author’s work in very definite, easily classifiable boxes, then it is this slim novel. It’s a literary punch to the gut which leaves a bruise a long time in healing.
The Language of Dying is essentially a monologue – though really it is a one-sided dialogue, if such a thing exists – between the narrator, the middle child of five, and the family’s father, who is slowly dying from the lung cancer which wracks his entire body.
The unnamed protagonist lives with her father after both of their failed marriages, and in his final week her siblings turn up to say their goodbyes – Paul and Penny, the older brother and sister, who have their own, grown-up lives, and the younger twins, Simon and Davey, forever locked in adolescent addiction and irresponsibility.
Skipping back and forth over time, Pinborough slowly uncovers the lives of her characters and paints, in detailed black-and-white strokes echoed by the beautiful cover illustration, their lives overshadowed by their father both when he was larger-than-life and as he lies, wasted and shrunken, close to death.
But there is something else in the dark fields beyond the house, something dark and impossible which the narrator at turn dreads and aches for. There are fantasy novels and there are novels with a smattering of fantasy; this is neither. It is a novel embedded in the harsh reality of death and all the prosaic, hurtful, upsetting things that go with it.
Yet there is a thin thread of the fantastic that runs through this novel; more than that, it holds it together. But like the best invisible mender, Pinborough only lets you see her dark weave when you need to.
Fans of Sarah Pinborough’s horror stories who read this expecting more of the same might be puzzled by The Language of Dying. Those who come to it from her urban fantasy might be disappointed by the lack of overt fantastical elements. Readers enraptured by her fairytale re-imaginings might find a lack of sauce in the more brutally realised relationships described.
But anyone who comes to this book with their expectations wide open will find a beautiful novel, short, sharp and told with painful honesty, which I would say is the product of a writer at the very top of her game, were it not evident from the quality of her prodigious output that Sarah Pinborough still has a way to go before she comes anywhere close to peaking.