The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janet Galloway

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Reviewed by Julie Barham

If a picture of mind numbing grief was to be fictionalised, this is the novel to read. This is a reprint in the Scottish Classic Vintage series of a book originally published in 1989. Joy Stone has been bereaved twice. The first death, of her mother, she regards as a trick on her mother’s part; she keeps expecting her mother to suddenly revive, say that it’s all been a joke. Her second bereavement is the sudden death of her married lover, and as she comes to terms with his death, or struggles to, she realises that he still belongs to his wife, despite having lived with him.

So far, so depressing. I would love to say that there are signs of hope in this book, signs of acceptance, recovery, even faith. This is a book of the minute by minute suffering of the narrator as she tries to survive a lonely existence where every action, every precaution against non -existence must be taken. I suppose to be pretentious this is a stream of consciousness narrative, where every feeling is exposed, recorded, noted. It is not so much the feelings as the small actions, the cleaning or non – cleaning of the house, the waiting for buses, the tiny actions of living when nothing seems to a purpose, when unspoken fear is behind every movement and memory.

It is the memories which hurt, which seemingly bring the most pain. Family and failed relationships seem to hurt rather than help, individuals try to provide food, diversions, help, but nothing seems to activate Joy, just challenge her to eat when she does not want to, commit to living. Her doctors and Health Visitors cannot get through as she walks, despite hunger, thirst and cold, trying to escape. Her surroundings do not help, on a difficult estate, in a house with paper thin walls which add to the sense of being watched.

This is a book which deals with the lack of perspective that bereavement, severe grief can cause. It does not describe or seek to explain or present generalisations. It is entirely subjective, entirely self absorbed. Facts emerge gradually, as occurring to the narrator, rather than being clearly set out. This is shows rather than tell with a vengeance. The fact that I disagree with is that the narrator can ‘teach’ drama without effort. I always found it significantly challenging!

This is a well sustained piece of writing which sets out the problem of existing when everything has being taken away or challenged. In that sense it is a strong novel, a consistently written, beautifully expressed narration. I struggle beyond that to find the positive in this book. It is, as the Sunday Times expressed it, “Extraordinary”. Enjoyable? I think not.

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader

Janice Galloway, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (Vintage, London, 2015) 9781784870133, 240pp., paperback.

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