First off I have to say that this character driven novel contains all the twists, secrets, guilt, misery, and mystery inherent in all of the best psychological thrillers available today. It does NOT read like the debut novel it is. Well done Holly Seddon!
The first, Amy Stevenson, is very damaged indeed. She is a hospital patient in a vegetative state. Fifteen years ago when she was only fifteen years old, she made a fateful decision which altered her own life and the lives of all who knew her. A silly schoolgirl infatuation coupled with a wager amongst her friends as to who would lose their virginity first… She had a dependable boyfriend, Jake, but like girls her age she craved someone more ‘dangerous’ and exciting. On her way home from school, she went with a man who had sex with her, attacked her, and later left her for dead.
Now Amy is trapped and unable to communicate. She has thoughts – but they are unclear and dreamlike. She doesn’t really realize her own condition, and remains in a distorted, confusing yet static limbo, where she is forever fifteen. She is unaware that time has moved on without her participation. She doesn’t know that she is now thirty years old. An unimaginably horrible plight.
The second woman, the protagonist, is Alex Dale, a journalist and a barely functioning alcoholic. She is the same age as Amy, yet her alcoholism has caused her to lose everything. Her career, her husband, and her unborn baby. Having already hit rock bottom, she is trying to break back into journalism by penning a health article on people in vegetative states. This only in the morning hours – because from noon onward she devotes her time to her serious drinking. Alex is a study in denial. She deludes herself by thinking that if she runs every morning it will somehow negate her deadly habit of drinking to excess every day. She has memories lapses, insomnia, fragile feet, bruises easily, and is incontinent at night. Her doctor has warned her that she will be dead within a year if she continues to drink…
Alex still loves her ex-husband, Matt, a police officer. However Matt has moved on and remarried and has a baby on the way. Moving on is not an option for Alex.
When she begins to visit the hospital for her article, she becomes more and more interested in one particular patient, Amy. She talks to Amy, plays music for her, shares her thoughts. Close in age, they have adolescent memories and experiences in common. As a result, she starts to investigate Amy’s case and wants to find out who did this terrible thing. Amy’s attacker was never found. Alex involves Matt in her investigations into Amy’s case. As painful as it is seeing him, she wants to prove to him that she can accomplish something – that she isn’t a complete loser. She also approaches Amy’s old boyfriend Jacob – which has repercussions for him that prove disastrous.
Jake visits Amy on a regular basis and keeps his visits secret from his pregnant wife, Fiona. He loves his wife, but still has feelings for his old girlfriend, Amy.
Set in Kent, England, this story is written in two time periods. The present is interspersed with flashbacks to the time surrounding Amy’s attack. The brilliant writing, strong characterization, and interesting premise make for compelling reading.
My only qualms about the novel were minor. I really did not find that the title ‘fit’ the novel. I couldn’t connect the two – perhaps someone smarter than I could elucidate? Also, I wondered how accurate was Amy’s voice? I guess the author had to rely on artistic licence for that one; as those suffering from Amy’s condition are in no state to help us understand. The author’s version was plausible, and that suited me just fine.
My guess as to ‘whodunit’ was close, but not on the money. The ending twist was satisfying and realistic.
A character strong plot with a British setting are two of my favorite qualities in a novel and “Try not to breathe” has both. Lucky me! I’m SO looking forward to Holly Seddon’s next novel!
Many thanks to Ballantine Books/Penguin Random House via NetGalley for providing me with a free digital ARC of this novel in exchange for my unbiased review.
I contacted Holly Seddon on Twitter and she explained how she chose the title of “Try not to breathe”:
It was inspired by the early 90’s REM song – which Amy would have liked. All the characters are holding their breath in a way!
Holly Seddon was born and raised in the sleepy south-west of England and now lives slap bang in the centre of Amsterdam with her husband and four children. Throughout her 15-year career, Holly has been privileged to work in some of the UK’s most exciting newsrooms.
TRY NOT TO BREATHE is her first novel.