Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman
UK: And Other Stories (2019). RRP: £10
Reviewed by Sandra Arnold
In Angela Readman’s debut novel, Something like Breathing, the author evokes with deadpan humour and acute observation the suffocating conformity of life in a small community in the 1950s. The two main characters, Lorrie Wilson and Sylvie Tyler, strive to negotiate their teenage years on a remote Scottish island where there is nothing to do and where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Lorrie has relocated there with her family from suburban England to live with her grandfather who runs a distillery. She makes friends with Sylvie who lives next door, but while Lorrie is outgoing and knows how to ingratiate herself with the in-crowd at school, Sylvie is ostracised by her peers because of her strangeness.
Lorrie describes her family and others around her through terms used in describing whisky. For Sylvie she writes:
‘Nose: There’s a scent of wood shavings on her fingers …
Palate: The cucumber in the sandwiches her mother packs in tight plastic boxes …
Finish: Pale as the lighthouse, skinny with a voice that shuffles up to her mouth …
Overall: This isn’t someone I can see myself with, if I’m honest. There are other girls who are more fun. I wander around with Sylvie without allowing myself to look as though I want to, determined not to catch her unpopularity and let it seep in.’
Sylvie’s inner life is documented in her diary, but the upbeat notes she leaves for her mother to find are written to keep her at bay.
Behind the false smiles and everyday happenings on the island, lives are in turmoil. Lorrie’s father loses his job and appears to suffer a breakdown that is never acknowledged. Eventually he disappears and when he is found and brought back to the island no explanation is given. Lorrie’s mother maintains the façade of a stable marriage while pining for her ex-boyfriend who still lives on the island. Dead owls are found on her grandfather’s doorstep as warnings from his disgruntled relative who feels swindled out of the profits of the distillery. Sylvie’s mother attempts to control her own life and Sylvie’s through excessive tidiness and an obsession with the sealing-in qualities of Tupperware. With a group of other island mothers she monitors and removes what she deems unsuitable books at the library. She controls what her daughter wears and discourages her having friends. She hopes Sylvie will become a nun.
What everyone fails to see is that Sylvie has a gift for healing those who are broken. Her actions are misunderstood by her mother whose efforts to protect her succeed only in driving her away. Lorrie misinterprets what she witnesses between her own father and Sylvie one night. Her anger is the impetus for Sylvie to bring about change in how she lives. There are no easy resolutions for the characters. People muddle on as best they can. The understanding Lorrie gains is that no one can really know another person or what they’re capable of. Angela Readman is an award-winning writer who has previously published a book of short stories and a poetry collection. Something like Breathing is an extraordinary novel. The language is deceptively light on the page, but contains a depth that makes you ache for the characters, makes you keep turning the pages to find out what happens to them, and makes you think about them long after the book is closed.
Sandra Arnold lives in Canterbury. Her two most recent books, Ash (Mākaro Press, NZ) and Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) are forthcoming in 2019. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia.