1001 books, 20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Janice Galloway, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, Vintage

‘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. 

Author, Catherine Lacey, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, New York, New Zealand, Publisher, Setting

‘Nobody is Ever Missing’ by Catherine Lacey

Nobody-is-ever-missing

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I must admit to getting a bit tired of reading contemporary novels about marriages gone wrong which are told entirely from the wife’s angst-ridden perspective — think Hausfrau and Dept. Of Speculation — but Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing is cut from (slightly) different cloth.

Running away to the other side of the world

For a start, there’s no sex in this novel, there’s no affair, indeed there doesn’t appear to be any good reason as to why the narrator, Elyria, would want to leave her stable life in Manhattan to do something totally unpredictable, irresponsible and dangerous. But that’s what she does. She buys a one-way ticket to New Zealand, presumably to get as far away from her husband as possible, and tells no one of her plans. She doesn’t even leave a note.

On the other side of the world, with little more than a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it to guide her, she hitchhikes from the north island to the south, having mini adventures and escapades along the way, until she lands at the farm she intended to find. Here, she moves in with Werner, a writer she once met in Manhattan, who casually invited her to stay in his extra room if she ever wanted to visit New Zealand.

Their relationship is purely platonic — she tends his garden in exchange for room and board — until she overstays her visit and is asked, quite forcefully, to move on. From there, Elly’s  adventure descends into a kind of madness as she grapples with her past, her current and her future.

A hyperactive voice

What I liked most about this book was Elly’s voice — it’s hyperactive, energised and full of mordant humour — reflected in breathless prose characterised by long, convoluted sentences that loop back on themselves or unfurl into unexpected directions. The following is a good example:

What I meant was I knew I had to do something that I didn’t know how to do, which was leaving the adult way, the grown-up way, stating the problem, filling out the paperwork, doing all those adult things, but I knew that wasn’t the whole problem, that I didn’t just want a divorce from my husband, but a divorce from everything, to divorce my own history; I was being pushed by currents, by unseen things, memories and imaginations and fears swirled together — this was one of those things you figure out years later but it’s not the kind of thing you can explain to an almost stranger in a broom closet while you’re mostly drunk and you barely know where you are or why you are there or why some people can smell secrets.

For much of the novel Elly is trying to figure stuff out, so what you get is a kind of mental diarrhea on the page, full of her thoughts and insights spilled out without any kind of filter. What she thinks and what she does often reveals her alarmingly naivety, but there are occasional flashes of brilliance that show she’s mature beyond her years.

Nobody-is-ever-missing-US-version

And while you could bill  Nobody is Ever Missing as a road adventure, it’s more akin to a psychological journey  in which the narrator tries to find herself without going completely mad. It’s occasionally frustrating to see her repeat mistakes over and over, or to think about the same things continually, and I admit that by the time I’d got half way through this book I was finding Elly’s company more of a chore than a joy. Indeed, once she’d reached Werner’s farm I was bored with the whole damn adventure and wish she’d just get back on that plane and save her marriage.

But it’s worth hanging in there. That’s because the author cleverly holds back key bits of information, so we’re never quite sure of Elly’s motivations until little revelations get dropped in and you begin to understand some of what is going on. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time too, inline with Elly’s memories, so that a disjointed picture begins to build up of her past life in New York where she made a living as a writer on a soap opera and married a mathematics professor much older than herself.

Key to all this — her current state of mind, her crumbling marriage, her desire to find herself — is the suicide of her adopted sibling, which runs like a refrain throughout the entire story, which is as much about loss (and grief) as it is about the search for meaning.

All up, I enjoyed (and admired) Nobody is Ever Missing. It’s very much about what it is to be human, to love and to be loved, and how important it is to find a place for ourselves in a complex world where nothing stays the same for very long.

Anneliese Mackintosh, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Freight Books, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, UK

‘Any Other Mouth’ by Anneliese Mackintosh

Any Other Mouth

Fiction – Kindle edition; Freight Books; 224 pages; 2014.

Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth won last year’s Green Carnation Prize, a prize awarded to LGBT writers for any form of the written word, from memoir to fiction, poetry to non-fiction. The book is difficult to classify, because even though it’s novelistic it feels very much like a memoir, and it’s structured around a serious of almost stand-alone chapters, so it could also be viewed as a short story collection, too.

Not that any of this matters, because pigeonholing Any Other Mouth does it a disservice: it offers a fascinating glimpse of one young woman’s struggle with identity, depression and grief after the death of her father. Think Slyvia Plath’s The Bell Jar meets Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and you’ll be in the right ball park.

Looking for direction

Gretchen, the first person narrator, has a distinctive and likeable voice, but from the outset it’s clear she’s a little messed up and in need of some direction, none of which she gets from her widowed mother (who has her own set of kooky problems), nor her younger sister.

My grief is bigger than your grief. My grief is so big it stretches my skin. My grief is so strong it crushes my bones. So hard it gives me black eyes. So cold I weep icicles. And my grief is so long that it dangles over my food when I’m trying to eat, causing me to throw up onto my plate, and onto my grief.

The story flips backwards and forwards in time. Many of the chapters are simply about incidents from Gretchen’s past that she’s recalling. Some of it revolves around her childhood and memories of her father, but much of it is about her time at university, where she was clearly bright (she did a PhD, but failed it), yet was never able to settle down. This worsened when her father became ill.

There’s not much of a plot, though there is a sense of movement — of Gretchen trying to break through her grief so that she can make sense of herself and her future — but Any Other Mouth is largely a character study, even if that character is enormously self-absorbed and immature. You get the sense this is a young woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, constantly looking for her rightful place in the world and desperate for the love and attention she can’t seem to get from her own family, nor the dizzying succession of lovers (of both sexes) that she takes up with.

Lightness of touch

Written with a lightness of touch — “frothy” is a word that kept recurring during my book group’s discussion of this book — it is fast-paced and imminently readable. But this shouldn’t be mistaken for frivolity or superficiality, because Mackintosh addresses some important and “heavy” themes including sex, sexuality, mental illness, self-harm and drug use. I was particularly shocked by Gretchen’s experience on a night out in which she was gang raped by a group of strangers in a pub, a secret she kept to herself for years. For this reader at least, it was like being walloped over the head with a frying pan. But it also explained a lot about why this young woman was so mixed up and “damaged”.

As this might suggest, it’s a very raw and confronting read in places. It includes painful truths about growing up and trying to carve your own path in the world when things around you are falling apart and you’re not quite sure which direction to take. But it’s not a miserable book: among the pain and sadness there’s humour too — Mackintosh is exceptionally good at capturing the absurdity of student life and living in a shared household for the first time, for example.

But for all its strengths, Any Other Mouth does feel like a series of creative writing exercises strung together (many of the chapters have been published as stories in literary magazines and journals, and some have even won prizes), so it will be interesting to see what this author tackles next. A more traditionally structured novel, perhaps?

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Patrick McGrath, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Spider’ by Patrick McGrath

Spider

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 221 pages; 1992.

I read Patrick McGrath‘s Spider — first published in 1990 — back-to-back with Nathan Filer’s Shock of the Fall. Both books are about mental illness, but McGrath’s is written in a more eloquent, old-fashioned, literary style, and left a far deeper impression on me. I don’t say this lightly, but it’s perhaps the best book I’ve read all year.

A tale of madness

The Spider of the title is Dennis Cleg, a troubled man who has returned to London from Canada, where he has been living for the past 20 years. He now resides in a half-way house not far from where he grew up in the East End, shortly before the Second World War. He spends his days wandering once-familiar streets and canal ways trying to adjust to a new life outside of the psychiatric hospital from which he’s recently been released.

I went down to the river, to a pebbly strand where as a boy I used to watch the barges and steamers; in those days they ran on coal, and constantly coughed cloudy spumes of black smoke into the sky. You reached the strand at low tide by a set of tarry wooden steps beside an old pub called the Crispin. Down I’d go to sniff around the boats moored there, old battered working boats with smelly tarpaulins spread across their decks, all puddled with rainwater and green with fungus. Often I’d climb onto the deck and creep under a tarpaulin, in among the iron chains and the damp timbers, and settle myself in a tick oily coil of rotting rope — I loved to be alone in that damp gloom with the muted screaming of the gulls outside as the wheeled and flapped over the water.

These childhood haunts bring back many memories for Spider, who furiously records them in a journal, which he is at pains to keep from prying eyes. In it he recalls how his father, a plumber with a violent streak and a fondness for drink, took up with a local prostitute, Hilda, whom he met in the pub. Shortly afterwards, his mother mysteriously “disappeared” and Hilda moved into the family home.

He was a shy, pensive boy, but after his mother “goes to Canada”, he became even more withdrawn. He coped by learning to separate himself into two people —  Spider, who scuttled about and disassociated himself from his grief, and Dennis, who presented a face to the real world.

As he looks back on these traumatic and troubling events, Spider’s narrative gets increasingly more disturbed in tune with his own behaviour, which becomes more erratic, odd and paranoid as he remembers more and more of his past. He wears all his clothes at once, tapes newspaper to his body, hears unexplained noises in the attic above him, frequently smells gas, and hides his few possessions in a sock worn on the inside of his trouser leg.

What results is a psychological thriller of the finest order, perfectly paced and structured, and with a satisfying, if ambiguous (and troubling), denouement.

Atmospheric novel

Without a doubt, McGrath’s second novel is a rather extraordinary achievement. It has so much atmosphere. You really get a feel, not only for that period in London history —  the oppressive fog, the dodgy outhouses, the murky canal, the noise and conviviality of the pub, the dank and seclusion of the allotment garden — but also of Spider’s fear, pain and neglect as a child.

The story is told in the first person entirely from Spider’s point of view, and sometimes it is hard to determine how much of what he tells us is real or a figment of his madness. His account is so vividly drawn, however, and so filled with pain, confusion and a distrust of all those around him that is hard not to immediately take his side, to wish you could walk into the book and make it all better for him.

The prose has such an emotional impact because there’s a complete absence of pity and sentimentality in it.  It becomes even more emotional (and shocking) when you discover the secrets at the heart of Spider’s fragile mental state.

Sadly, Spider appears to be out of print — I bought mine from a charity shop several years ago — but there are plenty of  second-hand copies sloshing around the internet for just a few pence. Alternatively, you could watch the 2003 film adaptation — directed by David Cronenberg based on a screenplay by McGrath — on DVD, which features Ralph Fiennes in the starring role. His performance as Spider is absolutely mesmerising: fragile and powerful, but also deeply disturbing, too — just like the book.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Collins, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer

Shock of the fall

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Collins; 321 pages; 2014.

Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall — which won the 2013 Costa Book of the Year, announced in January — charts one boy’s descent into madness. But this is not a sensationalised account of mental illness — it’s a highly nuanced and very readable book, worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon it.

The story is told by 19-year-old Matthew in a chatty, personable voice, often directly aimed at the reader — “I don’t know if you watch Eastenders, or even if you do, I don’t suppose you’ll remember an episode from so long ago” — which makes for quite an intimate, occasionally claustrophobic, experience.

This intimacy is further encouraged by the way in which the book is printed: different fonts are used to  show when Matt is typing his story on a typewriter or a computer, and it includes letters, both real and fake, from doctors and caseworkers, along with small illustrations, or doodles.

Tragic incident

While Matt never names his illness, we know that it has necessitated a stay in a psychiatric ward and is currently managed by weekly injections (because he’s inclined not to take his pills). We also know that it can be traced back to a tragic incident in his childhood: the death of his older brother, Simon, while the family were on holiday in Dorset, and for which Matt blames himself.

This blame seems to manifest itself in anger, which Matt struggles to contain — when he’s 10 he stabs a classmate with a compass; as a teenager his angry outbursts frighten his parents, his nanna and the nurses — so that a nasty undercurrent of violence seems to simmer below the surface at all times.

It doesn’t help that his mother appears to have problems of her own. In the immediate aftermath of Simon’s death, she fusses over Matt to such an extent that one wonders if she has Munchausen by proxy syndrome. But his grandmother, “Nanny Noo”, is a real tower of strength. She treats him kindly at all times and respects his desire for independence. When he moves out of home aged 17 to live with his school friend and takes up a low-paid job as a care worker, she offers him endless moral (and occasionally financial) support. Their relationship is beautifully told.

A story about mental illness

The novel’s greatest strength lies in its depiction of mental illness. It’s very well done, but this is probably no surprise given the author is a qualified mental health nurse and worked for the mental health service in Bristol for many years. There’s a lightness of touch so you never feel as if you’re reading a book about “issues”, and the ways in which the narrator intersects with medical staff and caseworkers feels incredibly authentic.

At times, Matt’s descent into madness reminded me very much of MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down (though far less dark) and Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (though far less violent), with a tinge of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time thrown in for good measure. Given that these are three of my favourite novels, this is high praise indeed.

Admittedly,  I wasn’t sure I liked the voice to begin with, because it felt a bit “dumbed down”, but I soon got used to it.  And the ending, which is redemptive and emotional, was a little too twee for my tastes.

It also feels as if the book is aimed at a young adult audience, and I suspect it would particularly appeal to teenage readers or those adults who don’t read very much and want something easy to sink their teeth into. That’s not to damn it with faint praise: The Shock of the Fall is a highly readable book that deserves a wide audience because it deals with uncomfortable, often ignored, subjects in an intelligent, well-informed and gently perceptive way.