The Trick is to Keep Breathing navigates the grief and depression of its protagonist, Joy, following the death of her separated but married lover, Michael. Michael drowns in the pool on their first holiday together in Spain. Joy’s inability to speak Spanish gives Michael’s death a frighteningly surreal quality, almost as if she is wading through a world she can’t breath in. She brings this world home with her.
Though her breakdown follows Michael’s death, it’s clear from Joy’s behaviour that submissive emotional fragility has been part of her life for a long time, and learning to step out of that behaviour is possibly the only way Joy is going to get better. What should she get better for, though? Her best friend has gone to work in America, her mother is dead, her elder sister is terrifying and though she has men in her life, they are like stiff drinks rather than relationships – they put a little fire in her belly, but give her a headache the next day. She feels she has no control over her life and the only step she can take towards taking control herself is to control what she eats – as little as possible – and to persuade the doctors that she needs a rest in a mental institute where she spends a large portion of the novel.
There is much to admire in the construction of the novel. I like the fragmented nature of the text: the lists, the occasional script layout, the notes in the margins, the memories of Spain in a poetical kind of repetitious italics, the letters. The book reads like the dislocated diary it is. However, I’d hoped for more. I’m interested in women using their bodies to express their suffering, refusing to nourish themselves and offering their physical self in place of their whole self, allowing sex to stand in for emotional connection. But somehow, The Trick is to Keep Breathing just didn’t move me.
Joy reads books, backs of cereal boxes, anything really, hoping to make sense of things, a hope not dissimilar to my own. I don’t hope for ‘the truth’ though, as I’m not sure it’s a graspable thing. I do, however, hope to find ‘glimpses of things just beyond the reach of understanding’ (p196) and The Trick is to Keep Breathing did reveal a few glimpses just not as many as I’d imagined it might. I think The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a well-written and interesting novel, and for the right reader, it could prove life-changing. Sadly, that reader is not me, but it could be you…
Next week I’m reading This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes, followed by Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Please do make book suggestions for future weeks.