Breath is one of my favourite reads. It is a novel that I feel I return to when I need space from the world. In fact a lot of Michael Symmons Roberts work I return to when I am overwhelmed, because there is an attention to detail which is calming, a grand sense of what is beautiful, and a playful dexterity with language that never fails to illuminate the dark. There is little doubt in his work, there is a self assurance with every line, and a direction. His direction is a little like a landslide you must trust, because you are never quite sure where you are heading. It is never writing that makes me frantic or bored. It is writing that reminds me gently that it is okay to simply be within a moment whatever that moment may contain.
I was recommended his collection Corpus a few years ago now and it is one of those collections that I never tire of. But Breath is still my only venture into his prose.
This isn’t a great big novel that does enormous things, it is quite beautifully spare, and I am certain wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes as it feels airy while you read it. There are pauses that are filled with great voids of what is and it leaves me wondering after answers that never really come. This novel’s job isn’t to tie up all the loose ends, but instead give you a glimpse into ‘what is’ in these character’s lives. It feels a short 200pages and if you’re anything like me you’ll read it in a few hours easily, however there is a lot going on between the covers.
It is a story about a lung.
“He wonders if the lungs have stored the last breaths of the dead boy, like a print on the retina. Could they hold his last words somewhere, like voicemail in the last breath, lost among alveoli, the countless tributaries of lung?” p.37
It is a story about a boy who falls off of his bike and in that instant experiences brain death. It is a story about organ donation and the grieving father who perhaps, never knew his son well enough. But also it is about the pilot who is flying the lung to the north of the country to it’s new home and of course about the man who is due to receive it. But it is also a story framed on the backdrop of a country just fully realising peace after a vicious civil war, a country where the dogs run wild, and tensions between North and South still run high.
“The hearts are what got us into this trouble in the first place. Now put the hearts into storage, put the passions and the pain and the crimson into cold storage. Bring out the lungs to give apologies, words of hope and reconciliation, words of direction.” p.41
This novel is at a calm after a storm, rather than before it. It has flavours of dystopia and political turbulence, a history of violence and terrible acts, but also absolution. There are beautiful passages about the body and poetic prose intermingled with regular prose, there are remarkable moments muddled with the ordinary. Breath is an unusual novel, and I will happily return to it.