This book is unsettling and upsetting – in a good way. It basically traces the workings of a young woman called Joy’s mind after her partner dies suddenly. Her grief quickly becomes extreme depression (and perhaps psychosis, though it’s not made clear), and she also struggles with alcoholism and social anxiety. We don’t learn a whole lot about her partner’s death (just enough to understand that it happened and was traumatic for Joy, narrated through brief and disjointed italicised flashbacks) and so the focus really is on the inner workings of Joy’s mind.
The writing style is super interesting. It’s fragmented, disjointed, full of unfinished sentences, marginalia, stream of consciousness and flashback, helping reflect Joy’s thought processes – I think it’s meant to be her diary, too. It also contains sections of dialogue narrated through the form of a script or screenplay; other sections contain a variety of fonts, sometimes words appear in bold, other times they don’t. It’s fun to read despite the subject matter, but the writing style also creates a real sense of uncertainty and even at times frustration, which I think was its purpose.
There isn’t much of a plot, but it works. Joy does go to a psych hospital for much of the story, and her experiences there seem to be a real dig at psychiatric treatment and how people with mental illness were treated at the time. That said, the fragile friendships she forms with other patients are touching, and move her even in the depths of her despair and disorientation. Primarily though the story focuses on her ruminating and over-ruminating about her lover’s death, past boyfriends, and getting anxious about her anxiety. But the story still really pulls you through. There are some sections where Galloway absolutely nails feelings of insecurity and low-self esteem – I was moved to tears a couple of times.
To be honest I probably would have enjoyed this novel more had I not already read one of Galloway’s more recent books – her ‘anti-memoir’ This is Not About Me from 2008 – which I thought was superb and is one of my favourite books ever (actually). The Trick Is To Keep Breathing was Galloway’s first novel, published in 1989, and so even though it’s awesome (I really do recommend it), I couldn’t help thinking of it as a less mature iteration of her now masterful style. Still really good though, a clear precursor to the popularity of slightly later texts around mental health and psychiatric treatment like Girl, Interrupted.