An impressive debut novel that sees reality and fantasy entwine, Something Like Breathing proves that Readman has what it takes to produce a distinctive, full-length piece of work. However, her background as a short story writer features prominently throughout the book; each word, each image, each scene and minor character, has a heartfelt purpose. No space is wasted in this novel, and as the reader flits between viewpoints and learns more about each young woman, we also gain a beautiful insight into the complicated dynamic between female friendships and familial relationships.
Readman begins by transporting us back to the 1950’s, and to a remote Scottish island, a place where time itself seems to move much slower. The pacing of the entire novel is perfect – the girls fumble through their school terms and boring summers, milling around boys they fancy (well, who Lorrie fancies anyway) and avoiding endless family dramas. In many ways, it’s a typical coming-of-age story that is reminiscent of so many that have come before it. Readman delights us with a plethora of startling imagery, creating this faraway setting that (presumably) many of her readers have not had the pleasure of experiencing. Her background as a well-received short story writer is showcased in all its glory here. Every beautiful sentence takes us to nuanced corners in this seemingly mundane world. We feel the island chills, the relentless sun and never-ending days, the tension between the characters – particularly Lorrie and Sylvie – and the eclectic homes they inhabit on this island.
I read the whole novel almost with a sharp intake of breath, slowly letting go as I neared the end of the book. Readman makes some interesting and daring literary choices – most notably, with the interjections of the ‘evaluations’, a nod to her gentle Grandfather, a character who roots them firmly to the island and all of its wonderful history. I began to look forward to these sections, which appear whenever a new character impacts the story. It is in these moments that Readman’s writing shines brightest. As she has to consider each section – nose, palette, and finish – we are presented with new ways of describing a person, different angles in which to consider them by. Readman offers an alternative, exciting, beautiful view of what it means to be human, and the little things that make up our unique identities.
It isn’t only the human as the individual that Readman explores in Something Like Breathing. In fact, one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the novel is the way in which she portrays the dynamic relationships between her characters, whether it be between friends, mother and daughter, star-crossed lovers, estranged siblings (which actually adds a refreshing comical element to the novel), or a lone father’s relationship with the rest of the world. Despite their battles, everyone is intent on keeping up appearances, capturing the attitude of the time that so many carried with them. This basic, ‘normal’ way of living doesn’t fit with Sylvie’s strangeness and Lorrie’s zest for life, which is where the basis of the story is formed. However, it is Sylvie’s colourful mother that interested me the most, although in many ways she is typical of a 1950’s housemother – obsessed with kitchenware and remaining house-proud, she flits through the novel like a hurricane, twisting and changing depending on what lies in her path. She shows one image to the world and another in the pages of Sylvie’s diary, the daughter she is nothing alike.
Of course, Lorrie and Sylvie’s tumultuous relationship is at the core of the narrative, and it reminds me so much of being young again, being confused about yet protective of those sometimes difficult female friendships that, especially as girl, we wholeheartedly throw ourselves into. While ‘friendship’ would perhaps be too strong a label to place on their relationship – especially at certain points in the novel, when Lorrie drifts towards the ‘cool’ crowd and finds herself swimming way out of her depth – there are certainly recognisable elements of that curious and beautiful female interaction. They fight, they hide things from each other, they reveal all in ways that they don’t know how to, and ultimately they care for one another, in their own confusing way. It is layered, and they are their own personalities after all. On the surface it doesn’t really seem like they should be friends in any sense of the word, so it is therefore even more precious when Readman offers us those pure, unfiltered moments of joy when the two girls do share a memory and navigate their hectic lives together.
Aside from being a beautiful coming-of-age type novel, documenting these strange years on this remote island, Something Like Breathing also treats us to the delightful world of magical realism. Magical realism is often lowly regarded when it comes to literary novels. In Something Like Breathing, the theme creeps up on us ever so gently, first in snippets, then in one great big sparkling wave. Sylvie is a poignant, intelligent young woman with a remarkable skill that, of course, isn’t fully appreciated in her tiny hometown. We follow her through her journey as she learns more about the power that has been bestowed upon her and how it interacts with the strange events unfolding throughout the island, each somehow placing her at the centre of each person’s existence. Sylvie’s section is given to us in the form of a diary, which is full of all the emotions that a young girl discovering herself would have. If it sounds like this is an unnecessary add-on to an already varied and interesting book, it’s not. The magical realism element supports the other themes, characters and setting of the novel, and fits perfectly with Readman’s language choices, which are never-ending in their beauty and intensity. A brilliant and daring path to take for a first novel, whose creation feels anything but safe.
It’s not hard to see that I loved this first novel from Readman, which was my first encounter with the writer. I knew she was primarily a short story writer, and that excited me from the offset. Being used to fitting their huge ideas into tiny spaces means they need to consider the value of every word, and even though this is a longer piece of work, Something Like Breathing carried that precious short story feel with it through every chapter. A bold yet softly hazy novel, this is a story that delights from the start right up until the very end.
Something Like Breathing is published by And Other Stories and is available here.
Angela Readman is a twice-shortlisted winner of the Costa Short Story Award. Her debut story collection Don’t Try This at Home was published by And Other Stories in 2015. It won The Rubery Book Prize and was shortlisted in the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. She also writes poetry, and her collection The Book of Tides was published by Nine Arches in 2016. Something Like Breathing is her first novel.
Read our review of ‘Don’t Try This At Home‘ here.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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