10 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: True Story and Holding Her Breath

51r0GvkHxqL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

Kate Reed Petty’s debut True Story, like many other contemporary novels over the past few years, tackles the topic of sexual violence – but with a twist. Alice is a teenager at high school when she passes out in the backseat of a car and wakes up to find out that boys have been boasting about what they did with her when she was asleep. However, rather than telling Alice’s story straight, Petty relates it through a mix of documents, memories and a more traditional first-person narrator, Nick, who was not involved in the alleged assault but also fails to challenge his friends when they start spreading the rumours. As the trying-too-hard cover suggests, this book is about who gets to be in charge of the story and what kind of story it turns out to be. In my favourite fragments, Alice and her best friend Hayley write gleefully violent horror movie scripts together. On the other hand, in a section that I thought was much too thematically obvious, Alice tries to write about her experience for a college application essay before giving up and inventing an standard ‘inspirational’ story instead to win the praise of her adviser. 

Overall, although I raced through True Story, I felt that it suffered from trying to be too clever and too meta. There’s a central twist in this narrative that would have been enough by itself, and definitely brings something new to the table in fiction about sexual violence [highlight for spoilers]. Alice eventually finds out that she wasn’t assaulted that night – the boys were just spreading rumours about her to big up their own reputations. Some reviewers have found this distasteful, suggesting that this makes the novel about a false allegation, but I don’t agree with that point of view at all. Petty vividly shows the impact that ‘just words’ have had on Alice and how devastating it is for her to feel like she no longer fits into the standard victim narrative – in no way does she minimise the impact of these boys’ actions. Indeed, I’d argue that she actually challenges some problematic assumptions about sexual violence by foregrounding its emotional rather than physical impact. [end spoilers]. However, rather than being content with that twist, Petty takes it a step further, and while I understood her thematic point about rewriting the story, I ended up feeling unsatisfied. Ironically, I found the most convincing and original sections of this novel belonged to Nick rather than Alice.

9781844885466

Beth was a champion swimmer before she had a mental health crisis in her final year of school and dropped out of active competition. Now she’s starting university a little late, tentatively swimming again, although not at the elite level where she once participated, and trying to work out who she is without the sport. She turns to another label that she’s had all her life: she’s the granddaughter of Benjamin Crowe, a famous poet who drowned himself in the sea before she was born. Her grandmother Lydia is reluctant to talk about the past, but Beth sets off to discover what lay behind Benjamin’s most famous poem, Roslyn, completed just before he died. Holding Her Breath, Eimear Ryan’s debut, reminded me strongly of Danielle McLaughlin’s recent novel, The Art of Falling, which also intertwines an artistic mystery from the past with a finding-yourself plot in contemporary Ireland. Both McLaughlin and Ryan write the same kind of effortless, matter-of-fact prose, as well. However, Holding Her Breath is the stronger novel; Beth is much more of a person than the somewhat blank protagonist of The Art of Falling, and the secondary characters are much more people in their own right as well, especially Lydia and Beth’s flatmate Sadie.

In the hands of a different writer, this might have been yet another book about Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional, following in the footsteps of Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan and Ottessa Moshfegh, amongst others. Beth certainly ticks a lot of the boxes with her mental health issues, her sudden decision to abandon her swimming career, and a few sexual partners. However, Ryan is definitely not writing that sort of character, and I liked Beth the better for it. Surprisingly, it turns out that you can have sex with different people without being bent on self-destruction! And quitting your ‘job’ doesn’t mean you are doomed to spiral into isolation! It’s a much more positive way to write about young women, and gives Beth more agency. Sadly, though, despite these strengths, I don’t think Holding Her Breath will stay with me for long. Despite its nuanced protagonist, it has nothing really to say, and its watery imagery feels too schematic. I’ll be looking out for more from Ryan, though.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

12 thoughts on “10 Books of Summer, #1 and #2: True Story and Holding Her Breath

  1. Holding Her Breath does sound a bit more positive than some others covering similar ground; though I’m not sure I will rush out to get it, it’s one I’d pick up from the charity shop. True Story looks far too meta and experimental for me but I don’t think I was likely to go for that one in the first place. Well done on getting books 1 and 2 done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually liked the film scripts 🙂 I thought the point being made was less obvious than eg the drafts of the college statement. The bit I’ve put in spoilers was a really interesting angle, I thought, and I wish she’d focused on that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t get far at all into True Story, but do remember liking Nick’s narration well enough. Too bad the book as a whole didn’t convince you. After seeing your review as well as Annabel’s, I think I’d definitely give Holding Her Breath a try if I found it at the library.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you in your spoiler point on True Story. If anything, it seems like Hayley is problematic as an adult in her own way. That’s all I’ll say in case other people see this comment and don’t want anything spoiled!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As you know I enjoyed Holding Her Breath. I still have the review copy of True Story I was sent last summer on my shelves – I will definitely give it a try (I got the ‘diner’ cover), so I didn’t read the spoiler. I generally like meta and quirky formats in novels – so it does actually really appeal.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: 10 Books of Summer 2021: A Retrospective | Laura Tisdall

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s