#100WomenNovelists: Janice Galloway

Blog Post 35: The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989)

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I can’t remember the last week with any clarity.

I want to be able to remember it because it was the last time anything was in any way unremarkable. Eating and drinking routinely, sleeping when I wanted to remember but I don’t.

Now I remember everything all the time. You never know what you might need to recollect later, when the significance of the moment might appear. They never give you any warning.

They never give you any warning.

When I began this series, I wrote a list off the top of my head of my favourite novels written by women in the 20th Century. I had no plan other than to choose a hundred of these. But I did know the series would be unlikely to include Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath; I know their writing well enough, studied as part of my English degree, but so much has been written about them. I wanted to choose some lesser known writers. Janice Galloway is far from unknown, but The Trick is to Keep Breathing is often compared to Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar. So I chose this as an alternative. And I much prefer it.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing charts the breakdown of Joy Stone, a drama teacher, following the death of her married lover. But far from being self-indulgent or depressing, this novel, with its rawness and brutality, has spirit and, ultimately, hope. It is a stunning depiction of the human mind in free fall and has rightly become a classic, establishing Galloway as one of the foremost Scottish writers of our time.

There are two reasons this novel stands out. The first is the use of the text itself; the different fonts, the out-of kilter layout, the words that sometimes fall off the page, the form really does reflect the content. The use of repetition, sections of dialogue exchange, adverts, agony aunt letters, horoscopes, flashbacks – all these fragments make up the whole of her confused mind and, like Joy, we must navigate our way through the disjointed narrative, filling in the gaps.

The second is the character of Joy herself. She has a history of family suicide, PTSD, an eating disorder – this should be a terribly downbeat novel. But Joy’s dry wit, her sarcasm, and her desire to find some meaning in her mess of a life, drag this piece kicking and screaming into the light. In part existential, in part an intimate portrayal of the daily grind of routine, this is an extraordinary read. I highly recommend it.

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