Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan
I’m willing to wager that of all sports, barring US favourites baseball and basketball, that occur in novels, that swimming predominates, and that it’s the number one sport for women characters. I have no real evidence to back this up, but here’s six fairly recent swimming covers (5 novels + 1 memoir). There’s also Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller and countless others, I’m sure.
Swimming, of course, lends itself to literary endeavour being rich in metaphor, be it psychological, physical or just watery, which probably explains its popularity with authors. All of which brings me to this super novel…
Beth Crowe used to be a competitive swimmer at school, but she burned out. Now she’s starting university, she’ll still train, she’ll still have therapy, but big competitions – not for the moment. Now is the time to build a new life, studying psychology, sharing an apartment with Sadie, an English student. She meets Sadie’s things before she meets her room-mate:
Sadie’s bed is unmade, which reassures Beth somehow. She sits on the rumpled blankets to examine the built-in bookcase. Her attention is immediately drawn to a familiar bright yellow spine: Benjamin Crowe’s Selected Poems. Absent-mindedly, she pulls it out.
Benjamin Crowe was Beth’s grandfather, dying before she was born. She only knows him through her grandmother, Lydia who fiercely controls the Crowe archive, and her mother Alice, of course, was their daughter. He committed suicide: he was also a big name in poetry.
One of Sadie’s lecturers is Justin Kelleher, a scholar of Crowe’s work. He’d visited Lydia previously to ask to see the archive, but she sent him packing with a flea in his ear. Beth had already bumped into him, ironically, at the college pool, so he already knows her heritage. She sneaks into Sadie’s lecture by him on Crowe:
Row upon row of students are skimming through identical editions of Roslyn. The prizewinner, the money-spinner, the one people read from at weddings and funerals. The one Ben never saw in print.
She finds herself interested in him, and after the lecture he is, naturally, interested in her – he’d realised she was there. But if she began a relationship with him, would it be true, or only because it might lead him to the archive?
Beth’s own interest in her grandfather’s life and work is truly awoken by all this interest in him. But also, she wants to discover Lydia’s story. The rule at home has always been we don’t talk about him. On her visits home, Lydia is increasingly frail, and Beth spends more and more time with her, discovering information in the archive that will lead her to a person who knows the truth about Benjamin Crowe, his death, and the women in his life. The novel’s title Holding Her Breath applies to Lydia and Alice as much as Beth, the swimmer.
I always enjoy a novel with a campus setting and Holding Her Breath is no exception to that rule. It’s a bildungsroman with the added literary and family mystery to be solved. The characters are all believable and well-drawn, Beth and Lydia in particular, but the person I felt for the most was Beth’s mum, Alice. In going straight to Lydia all the time, Beth’s single-mindedness neglects her mother. When Ben died, Alice was twelve, and was protected by Lydia from what happened, and has had to suffer ever since in a different way to the others. Luckily, mother and daughter do manage to unite.
Ryan writes with style to create a novel with great dialogue and witty observation, also employing plenty of those swimming and water metaphors, and admirable in its brevity (244 well-spaced pages). Dare I say it? I enjoyed this novel as much as a certain other Irish debut (which I reviewed here). I shall look out for whatever Eimear Ryan reads next, and thoroughly recommend this book.
Source: Review copy – Thank you. Eimear Ryan, Holding Her Breath (Penguin Sandycove, 2021) flapped paperback, 246 pages.
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