Like a Shadow: The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

In my review of Mayhem, published this past spring, I suggested that generations hence, people will revere this as the year of Sarah Pinborough. With six of her books published in the six months since, I think my argument still stands. There was Poison, Charm and Beauty too—a trio of neat novellas riffing on familiar fairy tales with such warmth and wit that Once Upon a Time seems shallow and artless in comparison—whilst the final volume of her first trilogy, The Forgotten Gods, will be re-released in North America in early December, as the previous books in said series have been throughout 2013.

It falls to The Language of Dying to bring the year of Sarah Pinborough to a conclusion, and the postscript it presents is both bittersweet and truly beautiful. It’s a life-affirming short novel about a tired old man waiting to die and the family of five that come together to bid him goodbye, and though I did not enjoy it at all, from first to last I admired The Language of Dying wholeheartedly.

It begins, as will we, with this:

There is a language to dying. It creeps like a shadow alongside the passing years and the taste of it hides in the corners of our mouths. It finds us whether we are sick or healthy. It is a secret hushed thing that lives in the whisper of the nurses’ skirts as they rustle up and down our stairs. They’ve taught me to face the language one syllable at a time, slowing creating an unwilling meaning.


In other words a common consequence of chain smoking; as is the terminal lung cancer our unnamed narrator’s father has. He’s been struggling for months, falling further and further from the waking world for weeks, and with only her to help; meanwhile she, as we’ll see, has issues of her own—not least the fear that she simply doesn’t fit. To her credit, however, she’s been with him since the beginning of this… and she’ll see it through to the end as well.

The same can’t be said for her sorry siblings. Only when an expert asserts that her father doesn’t have long left—merely a matter of days—do our narrator’s brothers and sister come crawling out of the woodwork.

Penny is the first of the arrivals. She comes the day after you take to your bed. She comes after my shaky phone call late at night finally convinces her that this is really happening; that this really has been happening for six months, no matter how much she tried to smile and laugh and ignore the facts.

The others arrive days later, and don’t dare stay. In the midst of this wretched reunion our narrator proves “the pivot, the hinge between the normal of Paul and Penny and the strange, mad world of the boys; sometimes tilting this way and sometimes that. In both camps and yet neither.” They think she’s a dreamer, and she is a bit… though her head is hardly in the clouds; rather, her heart is in the dark. She knows, after all, that there’s something out there. She’s seen it before, its red eyes sparkling in times of tragedy.

As to what “it” is… well:

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.

And she will see it once more before her ordeal is over.

Initially published as a long-since sold out limited edition, The Language of Dying is probably the most profound thing Sarah Pinborough has written. Its ending is practically predetermined, thus the narrative is concerned instead with our narrator’s relationship with her dysfunctional family; with her ailing parent and her brood of brothers and sisters, who are, to a one, very well done. Her envy of Penny, her uneasiness around Paul and her revealing relationship with the boys are deftly rendered aspects of a sympathetic and convincing central character.

Pinborough handles the speculative elements of the text elegantly as well. The terrible black beauty discussed above features only infrequently, but its every appearance evokes an uncanny combination of fear and hope both. It neither overpowers the gently affecting story-cum-portrait at the core of what is an appreciably personal piece, nor does it ever seem superfluous.

However brief, the experience of reading The Language of Dying is necessarily harrowing. That said, there’s catharsis come the bleak but beautiful conclusion, and in the interim, Pinborough’s words of wisdom are a salve of sorts on the emotional sore this short novel opens: “In the great scheme of things […] this is just the end. It isn’t the everything of you. And it’s the everything we’ll remember when the memory of this fades.”

If you’ve ever lost someone you loved—and who among us hasn’t?—then I dare say The Language of Dying will take your breath away, and send shivers up your spine, as it did mine at times. But only after it’s broken your heart.


The Language of Dying is available December 5th from Jo Fletcher Books.
Read an excerpt of the novel here on

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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