‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 236 pages; 1999.

Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a profoundly disturbing story about one woman’s mental breakdown following the death of her lover.

Written in a series of fragments, often sharp, melancholy or bleakly funny, the book reflects the slow inward collapse of Joy Stone’s world as she struggles to make sense of all around her.

This claustrophobic story, which won the American Academy of the Arts E.M. Forster Award in 1994 and the Mind/Allen Lane Book Award in 1990, is a soul-destroying portrait of what happens to someone when their grief cannot be publicly acknowledged.

As the “other woman”, Joy must mourn in private and keep her thoughts — and her tears — to herself, but such a burden eats away at both her psychological and physical health. Food becomes a punishment tool, rather than a source of sustenance or even medicine, and she develops an eating disorder that leaves her painfully thin.

She also begins to numb herself with drink:

Gin tastes sweet and bitter at the same time, stripping down in clean lines, blooming like an acid flower in the pit of my stomach. I top up the glass till it’s seeping. If I get drunk enough, I won’t go to work tomorrow either. This is cheering and helps me through another mouthful.

As Joy spirals into a deeper and deeper depression, the book’s structure becomes more fragmentary, more fractured. There are diary entries, extracts from magazines, recipes and letters all jostling for position in the narrative. It’s almost as if the reader is immersed in Joy’s brain as her thoughts whirl around in a jumble of confessional anecdotes, painful flashbacks and disjointed thoughts about her present and future. The fine line between sanity and insanity gets increasingly more blurred.

I haven’t read a book so immediately immersive nor as bleak for a long time. There are shades of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in it, particularly in its depiction of the pressures and burdens placed on young women trying to find their rightful place in the world, but it does end on a positive note: Joy forgives herself and comes to understand that survival is something you can learn. The trick is simply to keep breathing.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is featured in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it Edinburgh way back in 2007 as a souvenir of my trip (I always like to buy books by local authors) but it has shamefully sat in my TBR ever since then. 

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12 thoughts on “‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway

  1. I might give up reading lit.blogs. There are so many ‘must read’ books reviewed that you know you’ll never get to. Or worse, that you will come across and read without remembering the review. I still remember with enormous gratitude the people who talked me through various marriage break downs. To have had to do it in secret, let alone deal with death as well, would be horrendous. I might read (re-read I think) The Bell Jar, it’s sitting as it happens on top of my TBR. I’ve written myself a note, haven’t worked out yet how to do that on my (Windows) smart phone.

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    • Oh, I know, Bill: my wishlist gets longer and longer every time I do the rounds of the blogs! And do re-read The Bell Jar. I reread it several years ago and I was amazed at how comic it was. I had read it in my early 20s and just thought it was depressing. Funny how your view of a book can change depending on your life experience.

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    • I think the situation is made slightly worse by the fact Joy is very immature and doesn’t have a support network: when the book opens her best friend has moved to America, so she no longer has someone to turn to, and she doesn’t get on very well with her family so she can’t rely on them for help.

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  2. Like you, I found this an astonishing piece of writing. The fragmentation of the narrative reflects the increasing disorder of Joy’s mind with a harrowing accuracy. I’d also recommend Galloway’s memoirs if you haven’t already read them.

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  3. I love memoirs and this sounds good (although will put it down the list a bit given it’s bleak – in the middle of two grim books at the moment and will need something a little lighter next!).

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  4. This is a great book. It puzzles me why writers don’t use typography more often (it doesn’t really – I suspect publishers don’t like it!) Her short stories are also worth searching out.

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  5. Pingback: 20 books of summer recap – Reading Matters

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