When a book is hailed as being as compulsive reading as The Girl on the Train was, it would want to live up to that hype. When there are distinct similarities – a flawed protagonist who is a slave to alcohol, disgraced in her field of work and divorced from her husband who has since moved on to a more sympathetic model – there needs to be an upgrade big enough to surpass the original. And Try Not to Breathe fails to deliver.
The story opens with the thoughts of a teenage girl called Amy, lost in limbo. Something bad is happening that she can’t control, and it’s only when the narrative jumps 15 years, to the point of view of Alex, that the true horror of the situation comes to light.
Alex and Amy are the same age, and grew up in the same area. But while Alex has been married and divorced, successful and later a spectacular failure in her career Amy has been trapped in her own mind, doomed to spend her years in a brain injury ward. Alex has given herself the task of writing about the work of a local neurologist and as part of her piece she is taken of a tour of the ward. There, amongst the other patients in various states of consciousness and responsiveness she encounters Amy, barely changed in appearance since her brutal attack a lifetime before, stuck in time as the promising young woman whose life was stolen from her.
Alex wasn’t a friend of Amy’s, rather a contemporary from the next town over. Being familiar with the news story that dominated the media stream at the time Alex takes an active interest in Amy’s story – a story which has never been finished. Her attacker was never found, though her whole family was torn apart in the quest to do so. Amy is utterly alone in the world – seemingly – with her mother now dead and her step-father moved away to a new, less complicated life. It’s up to Alex now to seek justice for Amy and to find out what truly happened all those years ago.
In between Amy and Alex’s chapters are those told from the perspective of Josh, the teenage boyfriend of Amy and now not-quite-so devoted husband to his new wife with a baby on the way, and his mother, a typical middle-class housewife with a part-time job as a school secretary who disapproves of Amy’s working class background.
For fans of this new genre of novel, spawned from the likes of Gone Girl and the aforementioned The Girl on the Train, this is definitely a premise that will pique interest. But main character Alex is just not believable enough, her tattered life not quite tattered enough, and Josh is the type of drip who garners no sympathy, only a hope that the chapters from his narrative would hurry up and be over.
Author Holly Seddon is by no means a poor writer. Her turn of phrase and ability to create distinct characters is admirable, but there is a feel to some of the clunkier moments that another draft of the manuscript might have been a benefit. The ending seems rushed, and unsatisfactory, and everything is tied up far too tightly. Some elements are needless and laboured – for instance Josh’s marital problems stem from his complete inexplicable inability to be honest with his wife about his past and are dwelled on for far too long and for too often – and other avenues that seem of interest are not explored thoroughly enough, or at all.
With all that being said, it has to be mentioned that the chapters from Amy’s perspective can be truly heartbreaking, and are really well rendered. It’s very hard not to sympathise with her predicament, and the dips in and out of her mind are a clever way of bringing her individual story into the present and up to date with Alex’s investigations.
It won’t give the gratification of The Girl on the Train, or give you pause for thought like Gone Girl, but if you’re in the market for a quick read to take you on to meatier stuff, you could do worse than this.
- Aoife B. Burke
- First published in The Tuam Herald 24.02.16