Rating 5 stars
The Trick is to Keep Breathing is book eight on my summer reading challenge list, part of Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge. It is the story of Joy, a Drama teacher whose life is unravelling. It combines narrative with text layout, font weight and insertion of illustrative elements to represent Joy’s unravelling. There’s a feel of concrete poetry to it, and the sort of textual play that Nicola Barker used in her novel H(A)PPY. There’s also a feel of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to Joy’s story, superficially in the way Joy looks to women’s magazines to distract and instruct, and more seriously in the way her immediate family has treated her, and the damage not having a safety net can do to a person.
I picked my copy up in Well-Read Books of Wigtown, a bookshop where you can holiday and take the opportunity to find out what running a bookshop might be like.
Janice Galloway’s debut novel won the MIND Book of the Year/Allen Lane Award on publication in 1990. First awarded in 1981, the MIND Book of the Year recognised writing that heightened understanding of mental health issues in all their forms.
Joy is grieving. Her grief manifests in obsessive compulsive behaviour and an eating disorder, in sexual roulette and self-harm. Through the bleakness of her grief, she retains her dry wit. She uses work to define herself, having lost her grip on who she is beyond the classroom walls. She is funny when she talks about teaching. She is funny on the subject of cleaning the house before the health visitor comes, riffing on how she was determined as a teenager not to turn into her mum. She is funny when she talks about the men she works with at her part time job in a bookie’s. She’s even funny when talking about the ways she avoids the external pressure to eat and the way she navigates her weekly doctor’s appointment and the way she toys with suicide.
None of it is actually funny, though. Years of being made to feel inadequate as a person by her mother and sister have left Joy traumatised. Her sexual relationships are dysfunctional, time spent trying to prove her necessity to another person, time spent with men who have other, more permanent relationships, and Joy just a quick fuck on the side.
Joy is grieving Michael, the work colleague she was in a relationship with, until their Spanish holiday and his unexpected death. Punctuating the now of Joy’s existence is a series of italicised recollections of the moments around her partner’s death. They are dreamlike, snapshots, sensations, shapes and colours that stand in for the reality Joy wants to avoid facing.
In the margins of the text are fragments of another piece of writing, repeating the same phrase, shifting from obscure, out of context snippets to almost complete sentences, providing a sense of dislocation, of other thoughts in the background to what Joy is telling us. The main body of the text occasionally moves from a bold, heavy typeface to a thinner one, something that made me think of a radio signal weakening. I read the lighter typeface as a tinny sound, the visual trick generating an audio equivalent in my mind.
I recognised the shape of Joy’s depression, in its desire to think about nothing. I recognised her need to keep still, to stay up late, to distract herself with supermarket wanderings that result in the purchase of empty calories. In Joy’s case, calories destined for the bin. I thought Janice Galloway captured that particular manifestation of depression well. I am, thankfully, mentally well at the moment. There are triggers within the pages of this book that a less well me would have responded to. There are triggers, too, that others might respond to: Joy’s drinking and self-harming while drunk.
Galloway has a way of capturing the peculiarities of the mundane. When Joy cries, it’s like warm fingertips slithering under her chin. When she goes out for a walk, the soles of her boots seem to seep through the surface she walks on. Recalling her mother’s wake, Joy tells us that the room was full of the sweet smell of turned ham. Galloway’s turns of phrase placed me into each scene.
I thought about Joy a lot in the moments between reading. She is a character who got under my skin. For all the awfulness of her immediate circumstance in this novel, she is a good person trying to do her best, trying to keep going when all she really wants to do is stop. And although she is at an extreme of being, there is a truth to her experience that has more to do with how society pigeon holes the binary genders.
I used to spend a lot of time waiting. Women do. Women have this tendency to think things will be better if they wait longer …
The scenes in the psychiatric hospital Joy spends time in reminded me of what a different time we live in, in regard to mental health. The way the hospital staff treat Joy, the lack of respect shown, although filtered through Joy’s unreliable perception, rings true of a time thirty or so years ago. The reluctance among her friends and colleagues to properly talk about how Joy is feeling, too, in particular the attitude of the senior teacher who calls her into his office and basically tells her to pull herself together and smile more. As though that’s how depression works.
The visits made by Joy’s colleagues and friends are a window into people’s desire to show they care and their awkwardness about doing so. Part of that awkwardness is discomfort with the surroundings of a psychiatric hospital, but much is down to not knowing what to say or how to help.
Towards the end of the novel, Joy starts to work through how her mind is working. The things she writes made me wish that she’d had a counsellor to work through these things with her. The things she writes are true: that she minds not having answers to her questions, that she can’t drift through life not minding that she doesn’t know what the point is, that family has a lot to do with how we move through life, that many people don’t mind that they don’t have any answers, that some people do mind but feel like they can’t say so. What Joy doesn’t say, but is also true, is that sometimes the minding about the absurdity and hardness, the very pointlessness of existence, is so overwhelming with all the things you need to look at in order to understand how you feel about it, that you have to cap it off just to keep going. And other times, as for Joy in this novel, all the things you’re trying not to look at, because taking them one at a time is impossible, break through the cap anyway and paralyse you. That’s how depression works.
I was expecting this novel to be harrowing, but there is a lot about it that is positive. Galloway writes frankly about one woman’s experience of depression in the aftermath of bereavement, but the story doesn’t wallow. Galloway’s touch is light without being reductive. Joy as a character is believable and likeable. At the end of the book, as she emerges from her inability to face the truth of Michael’s death and begins to put her life back together again, I was rooting for her.