“Underwater breathing” by Cassandra Parkin – Book Review

High on a Yorkshire cliff lives a dysfunctional family.  Mother Maggie, father Richard, sixteen year-old son Jacob, and his half-sister, seven year-old Ella.  The house, like the family itself, is getting perilously close to destruction due to shore erosion.  Jacob, who cares deeply for his little sister, tries his best to distract her from the increasingly volatile arguments and domestic strife between his mother and father.  He takes her up to the turret bathroom in the old house where they play games of timing each other as to who can hold their breathe underwater the longest.  Jacob wants Ella to be so concentrated on this game that she will not be stressed out by their parents’ fighting.

Although Jacob goes to school, Ella does not. She is home-schooled by her mother. This state of affairs leaves the little girl often lonely, bored, and friendless as her mother quite often sleeps during the day.  Ella is constantly anxious. She fears the sea – in particular she is afraid that her house will tumble to the sea. One day that Ella is particularly lonely, with her toy pony ‘Rainbow Dash’ in hand, she visits the dour and solitary next door neighbour, Mrs. Armitage.  This lonely and childless woman acts as a sort of surrogate parent for Ella. Much to Mrs. Armitage’s denial and distress she comes to care deeply for the little waif. Ella visits become more and more frequent over time.  Mrs. Armitage buys special cookies for Ella – and paper and pencils for her many drawings…

“Of course, she hadn’t been hoping Ella would visit. She didn’t like visitors. But when you found yourself accidentally inviting them anyway, it was best to be prepared.”

Mrs. Armitage is a strong, independent woman. She is a widow, and a scuba diver. She lost her husband to the sea when his boat went down off the coast.  Now, she finds comfort underwater – the quiet, the solitude…

After one particularly distressful evening of fighting, Ella vanishes, along with her mother…  Jacob can never forget his little sister and carries deep regret with him into adulthood.

Then, we fast forward to Jacob a decade later. He now works as a school teacher and he cares for his father. Though not yet sixty years old, Richard suffers from early onset dementia due in part to his excessive drinking.  Jacob shares the care of his often confused, paranoid, and sometimes violent father with the woman next door, Mrs. Armitage.  He loves his father, but finds himself increasingly resentful, despairing, and full of rage at the state of their lives. His father’s unpredictable and abusive behavior is written so realistically that you will weep.

When Ella returns to the house a decade after she left, Jacob is overjoyed. He adores her. Their father seems to have no memory of Ella and refers to her as Jacob’s girlfriend.  Ella’s return marks a turning point in all of their lives.

“Human beings were strong.
They could survive far more pain than they wanted to believe.”

When a fierce storm hits the headland, the impact is felt irrevocably by Jacob, Ella, and Mrs. Armitage.  For the storm is not only a physical storm – it is an emotional storm as well.

What a moving and powerful novel!  The deeply dysfunctional family and the damaged yet sympathetic neigbour were unforgettable characters. Mrs. Armitage was by far my favourite character and I felt bereft when I finished the book.  The writing was beautiful. The atmospheric setting – a crumbling cliff overlooking the North Sea immersed the reader in a foreboding and almost sensual way.

I loved this book. You might not be comfortable with some of the subject matter, but you cannot help but be moved by it.  Highly recommended!

I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel directly from Legend Press.  This unbiased review is my way of saying thanks.


Cassandra Parkin grew up in Hull, and now lives in East Yorkshire. Her short story collection, New World Fairy Tales (Salt Publishing, 2011), won the 2011 Scott Prize for Short Stories and her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies.  She is the author of “The summer we all ran away“,”The beach hut“, “Lily’s house“, and “The Winter’s child“.

Follow Cassandra on Twitter @cassandrajaneuk

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
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10 Responses to “Underwater breathing” by Cassandra Parkin – Book Review

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  5. carhicks says:

    Wonderful review Lynne. This one looks good, dysfunctional families tend to grab my interest. I will need to see if I can find this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. skyecaitlin says:

    Great review, Lynne; however, I am being careful of what to put on my TBR, and currently, I am still working SLOWLY through past Cover Loves and Cover redux!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ann Marie says:

    Excellent review! I hadn’t heard of this one but it looks amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

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