“This was the best way. Things would work themselves out, in time. Human beings were strong. They could survive far more pain than they wanted to believe.”
Author: Cassandra Parkin Published: 2018 Pages: 324
I have read a few books from Legend Press now, and based on the blurb alone, Underwater Breathing definitely intrigued me the most. Half siblings Jacob and Ella, (and their parents), recently moved to a quiet house which sits precariously close to the edge of a crumbling cliff in Yorkshire. Six year old Ella is scared that the sea will come and take them, so she enlists the help of her sixteen year old brother, Jacob, to help her learn to breathe underwater. This way, even if the sea does devour their house, they will survive. They practice this when their parents are arguing by filling up the bath tub and timing each other to see how long they can hold their breath. One particularly stormy night, Jacob and Ella go to bed after a game of Underwater Breathing, but when Jacob wakes, his mother and his sister have disappeared. Jump to ten years later and Jacob, now an English teacher, is left to look after his senile father who was crushed after his wife’s disappearance and turned to alcohol to numb the pain. Then suddenly, Ella reappears and Jacob must confront the truth about what happened on the night of her disappearance, while also accepting that the reality he lives in now, is far from anything he ever wanted his life to be.
As an English student, I sometimes can’t help but pick out metaphors and allusions in novels, and I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Underwater Breathing so much. The game which Jacob and Ella play in the novel so beautifully recognised their desire to escape their parents arguing, while also being shrouded in the idea of Ella’s fear of the sea. When Ella does return, some 10 years later, the encroaching sea mirrors Jacob being forced to come to terms with his reality, while also reflecting his father’s madness encroaching on his sanity. Overall the crumbling cliffs and dangerous sea were fantastically used by the author to anthropomorphise the struggles of Jacob and Ella’s family life, and I love any kind of subtle metaphor in a book.
I love books about ordinary people, and their ordinary lives, and this book was certainly that. The painful and disappointing truth of being human, and the harsh reality that life is never as idyllic as you imagined it would be as a child. Jacob and Ella’s relationship was endearing and fascinating, especially as there was a bit of an age gap between them. (Jacob so desperately was yearning to be a better father than Ella’s father was to her.) I also loved the character of Mrs. Armitage; she was quirky and funny and definitely had a lot more secrets than she cared to share with anyone.
The novel took a little bit of a weird turn about 3/4 of the way in, but if I’m honest, with hindsight, I think I actually saw it coming. Parkin does manage to somewhat tie up the loose ends with regards to that, but I don’t think I can comment on it much without spoiling it, so I will leave you to read it and make up your own mind.
While I don’t think I can give this book full marks, all in all it was a fascinating take on one family’s struggle to survive through their own strife, while highlighting a brother and sister who strengthen each other and somehow manage to endure.
Thank you to Legend Press, for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.