Young voices that be­guile from the be­gin­ning

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS | REVIEWS - SARAH GILMARTIN


Friend­ship and com­mu­nity are at the heart of An­gela Readman’s de­but novel Some­thing Like Breath­ing, a charm­ing and quirky tale about two girls grow­ing up on a re­mote Scot­tish is­land. With a plot that is sec­ondary to the sharp ob­ser­va­tions and evoca­tive de­scrip­tions, the novel form gives Readman, an ac­claimed poet and short story writer, the op­por­tu­nity to show­case her finely tuned prose and flair for im­agery. But there is also much to like about the story, which is rem­i­nis­cent of the nov­els of other emerg­ing au­thors such as AJ Pearce, Kit de Waal and Jess Kidd in its abil­ity to de­liver a whole com­mu­nity within its pages.

Set in the late 1950s, the nar­ra­tive be­gins with 13-year-old Lor­rie Wil­son and her fam­ily leav­ing main­land Scot­land in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances to re­lo­cate to her mother’s child­hood home on the is­land. The fam­ily moves in be­side Sylvie and Bunny Tyler, two off­beat char­ac­ters who help bring the is­land and its cus­toms to life. Sylvie is an un­pop­u­lar, tac­i­turn teenager whose thought­ful diary en­tries are spliced with Lor­rie’s com­ing-of-age nar­ra­tive. Readman skill­fully weaves el­e­ments of the su­per­nat­u­ral into Sylvie’s char­ac­ter with­out jar­ring with the dead­pan re­al­ism of the rest of the book. Sylvie’s voice is quaint and in­tel­li­gent, an out­sider at school who doesn’t give two figs about her sta­tus. To say more about her abil­i­ties would spoil the plot but there is just enough sus­pense to keep the story tick­ing over.

Less suc­cess­ful is the English au­thor’s abil­ity to con­nect Sylvie’s pow­ers with Lor­rie’s fam­ily sit­u­a­tion. In­ter­est­ing prob­lems abound in the Wil­son fam­ily – a cur­mud­geonly grand­fa­ther, a de­pressed fa­ther, a mother whose child­hood sweet­heart, Rook Cut­ler, is a con­stant loom­ing pres­ence – but ul­ti­mately they go nowhere. The sex­ual ten­sion be­tween Rook and Lor­rie’s mother is over­done. Lor­rie re­peat­edly tells us about her par­ents’ un­happy mar­riage and Readman, a re­strained writer else­where, goes too far when show­ing us what she’s miss­ing:

“Over his shoul­der, I saw her gaze meet Rook Cut­ler’s. He looked at her and looked down at his hands. It was a sur­ro­gate kiss. The first time my mother ever kissed her child­hood sweet­heart, she did so with her eyes while her hus­band’s lips bore the weight.” The pas­sage could be cut af­ter “hands” and de­liver the same in­for­ma­tion and ef­fect.

Per­spec­tive is an is­sue also as Lor­rie tries to tell us her mother’s thoughts: “My mother smiled though she knew as soon as Rook left, her hus­band would say, ‘What does he still call you Lucky for any­way? It’s ridicu­lous.’” An­other of Lor­rie’s nar­ra­tives starts, “Rook Cut­ler knocked off from the dis­tillery and popped his head around the door. The day had been end­less.”

In try­ing to ren­der two sep­a­rate fam­i­lies and the wider is­land life in a rel­a­tively short novel, Readman does too much, though ev­ery­thing she gives us en­gages, from Sylvie’s oth­er­word­li­ness to Lor­rie’s at­tempts to fit in with the pop­u­lar crowd. At her mother Bunny’s re­mar­riage to an is­land wid­ower, Sylvie shocks guests with her re­ac­tion to a dead bird: “She didn’t turn around. One hand on a wing, she low­ered her head and placed her lips on the bird’s neck.” In the op­pres­sive, tit­tle-tat­tle at­mos­phere of the is­land, the story morphs into some­thing grotesque and comic.

Lor­rie’s reck­on­ing with is­land life also brings hu­mour. Ask­ing Sylvie what her pet rab­bit is called, she is given the dead­pan re­sponse: “Stew.” Other in­di­ca­tors of is­land life in­clude the de­press­ing choice of teenage boys for Lor­rie to date, the lack of any­where to go when she does man­age to wran­gle one, and the fact that The Wiz­ard of Oz is the only movie shown on the is­land for months – be­fore a com­mit­tee de­cides it’s a bad in­flu­ence on the young peo­ple.

Lor­rie’s smart-alec ban­ter with Bunny, a com­i­cally drawn 1950s housewife who is al­ways clean­ing, bak­ing or try­ing to im­prove some­one, is an­other source of light­ness: “You should give me some tips on in­vis­i­ble make-up some time, Bunny.”

A stylis­tic de­vice where Lor­rie de­scribes the peo­ple she meets as one would a bot­tle of wine – nose, palate, over­all – sounds like a stretch but works well. An eval­u­a­tion of her mother reads: “The clothes she wears have the slight­est aroma of the dust she sweeps around the kitchen, spilled sugar, beeswax and cof­fee.” A less than pleasant date is sum­marised: “That va­ri­ety of boy it isn’t pos­si­ble to imag­ine hav­ing said please, not once in his life.”

From the wilder­ness of the set­ting to sem­i­nal mo­ments in the girls’ friend­ship, Readman cap­tures her sub­jects with ease and clar­ity. Some­thing Like Breath­ing is a charm­ing de­but whose young voices be­guile from the be­gin­ning and im­part their lessons with a light touch along the way: “I gulp a breath. Hold it in. The older I get the more I need to learn how to breathe.”

“One hand on a wing, she low­ered her head and placed her lips on the bird’s neck.”

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