The Trick Is to Keep Breathing

Joy Stone is a twenty-seven-year-old divorcee and teacher whose affair with a married colleague, Michael Fisher, comes to a sudden end on holiday in Spain. He drowns, and she is left to cope as best she can. Once on her own, she finds herself at the mercy of others: a loathsome would-be seducer named Tony, a Mr. Dick from the Housing Authority, and her estranged older sister Myra. She is also at the mercy of the doctors and other representatives of a therapeutic society that can offer little more than four drugged weeks in a mental hospital, home visitations, and mental health cliches. Trying to last, to wait out her depression, she lives the way some people paint, by the numbers: recording dates, making up lists of things done or to do, keeping track of her every act.

Joy Stone’s life may be numbing, but Janice Galloway’s novel is anything but. The narrative is necessarily discontinuous, but it is also textually diverse, incorporating diary entries, painful memories set off in italics, even marginalia—omnifariousness substituting for omnipotence. The narrator-protagonist’s occasionally wry self-consciousness and mordant humor do not so much lighten as intensify the horror of a grim, ghastly comedy played out against Joy’s belief that she is the one at fault, her expectations too high, her actions all wrong. “Screaming would be good,” she writes to herself at one point. “But I never scream. I can write it down but never do it.” Hers is a life of quiet desperation beyond anything that the ever self-reliant Thoreau ever imagined out at Walden Pond, a clinical depression that runs in the suicide-prone female side of the family, something like the dry rot, “more sinister than the name,” that is silently destroying her house.

THE TRICK IS TO KEEP BREATHING is an impressive and compelling novel, the equal of the very best works on the same general theme by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Doris Lessing, Joan Didion, and Renata Adler—as triumphant in its artistry as it is harrowing in its depiction of what Joy, parodying the prolific Anthony Trollope, calls “the Way Things Are.”