Janice Galloway - The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Janice Galloway’s debut novel made a considerable impact upon its publication. Winner of the MIND Book of the Year/Allen Lane Award, American Academy EM Forster Award plus a SAC book award, the novel was also shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel and Irish Times International Fiction Prize, placing Galloway alongside Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard as one of the early exponents of the new wave of experimental, postmodern Scottish writing.
The raw, affecting first-person narrative explores female depression through the eyes of 27-year-old drama teacher Joy Stone, as she tries to find some meaning in life/reason to keep on living following the accidental drowning of her married lover, Michael. Galloway deftly dissects conceptions/misconceptions of bereavement, sanity/insanity, alienation and an ultimate salvation through the reactions of various characters to the death of Michael as Joy struggles desperately to keep afloat, despite the detrimental influence of some glib therapists, worryingly haphazard medication and her uncomprehending friends.
Like Gray’s 1982, Janine and Lanark, the novel experiments with typography and form to help illustrate Joy’s increasing mental dislocation. Throughout the book, the use of news headlines, disjointed sentences, flashback, speech bubbles, different fonts, floating words and text falling off the page both serve to illustrate her deteriorating mental state and parody the sinister and pervasive effect ‘women’s’ magazines attempt to have in controlling and influencing female behaviour. Perhaps the most effective of these experimental techniques is the mimicking of short script extracts when Joy is communicating with the men in her life – psychiatrists, her boss and ex-boyfriend – as they strive to assert their power over her. What, in the hands of a less accomplished writer, could easily have slipped into a bleak, introspective read is buoyed by Galloway’s deft wit and beautifully drawn secondary characters, from the gloriously unhinged Ros who Joy meets in the psychiatric hospital, to her belligerent, bombastic doctor.
The subject matter, confessional nature and dissection of the patient/psychiatrist relationship of the book, led to comparisons to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar when the book was published but, personally, I feel Galloway’s gritty humour, compassion, agonising power of observation, breadth and experimental vivacity struck a far more intimate chord.
Further reading: Where You Find It (1996) is a collection of short stories on the theme of love; Clara (2002) is an incredibly inventive imagined life of 19th century musician Clara Schumann.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.