The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

Vintage, 2010?* 236 p. First published 1989.

 The Trick is to Keep Breathing cover

Janice Galloway’s much lauded first novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, relates the adult experiences of a woman who is/was a teacher but also worked in a bookmaker’s and whose life started to unravel when the man she was living with (another woman’s husband) drowned. In the main body of the novel the narrator is an anorexic and self-harmer unable to talk about her situation. “We are veering into the difficult territory of how things are.” She is recommended by a psychiatrist to enter hospital. The doctors she meets are so indistinguishable she thinks of them as numbers; Drs One, Two and Three. In the hospital, “Most of (the rules) work on the landmine principle: they just let you loose till you trip on one of them.”

Partly to suggest her skittish mental state the text is non-linear, full of lists, repeated phrases, unconventional typography (one whole page has nothing but the word “oops” just over halfway down,) dialogue that is not indicated by quotation marks – but in interviews with health workers is rendered as in the text of a play – and has sentences that break off somewhere in

In addition wide margins allow the occasional insertion of (repeated) words or phrase fragments. This is almost in the style of Alasdair Gray’s marginal notes but here really add nothing to the novel but I suppose are again indicative of mental state.

Prior to the – unnamed; at least, I can’t recall one – narrator’s hospital admission (the doctor) “gave me pills to tide me over when I got anxious. I got anxious when they didn’t tide me over into anything different. He gave me more pills.” Later; “Maybe the pills know the answer. I doubt it but I have no proof.” Some time later she looks in a mirror. “But what looks back is never what I want. Someone melting. And too much like me.” She also avers, “Persistence gets me every time. I haven’t got any.”

She is prone to noting things like,
“This the Way Things Are.
This is What Passes For Now.”

She realises, “There’s no fucking point is there?” and eventually that the difference between her and other people is minding. They don’t mind they don’t know what the point is.

In sum The Trick is to Keep Breathing is neither a comfortable nor an easy read. As an examination of a fragmenting psyche and the incomprehension and indignities it suffers it’s illuminating, though.

Pedants corner: The text refers to a fifth form romance – in Scotland we say fifth year. We had a “sunk” count of one, “‘What are supposed to come here for?’ I said,” “He sat me down and said looked serious,” an “is” for “if,” attracive, an “it’s” for “its,” and “too neat and know” which no matter how I tried I just could not parse.

*The book states “published by Vintage 1999” but at the back has an advert for the same author’s 2003 novel Clara so must be a later reprint.

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  1. Peggy Ann

    Jack, I’m so glad you posted this. I am going to skip this book completely.

  2. jackdeighton

    Glad to be of help Peggy Ann.
    The book has merits but I knew the tricksiness of the typography and treatment – not to mention the subject matter – would put some people off.

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