Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How to Breathe Underwater

I picked up ‘How to Breathe Underwater’ up on a whim. It was at the bottom of a book trade and swap box at a hostel, covered in a thick layer of bodice ripping romances and dust. To be honest I rarely read short story anthologies; it’ll be even rarer that I would consider laying out some moola for one. Yet I loved this book so much I continued to carry it, despite risking herniating a disc from hulling around a ridiculously heavy backpack. The characters are so vividly flawed and fragile I just couldn’t them sit idle, dusty and unloved. Greedy I suppose; I promise to lend* it out I swear.

There are nine short stories, ranging in setting from a vineyard in Italy to a local swimming pool to San Francisco. None of the stories are particularly uplifting. In fact the stories are so bleak they leave a thin film melancholy over you, that sits there even days after finishing the book. Despite the sober stories, I couldn’t help but jump from one to the next.

The writing in ‘Pilgrims’ is so pared back and exacting, you’re drawn into the confusion of Ella dealing with her mother dying of cancer, which is an emotionally raw topic but then the ending of the story is so violently shocking and dark, I probably almost popped a lung from holding my breath. Then there’s poor Isabel in ‘The Isabel Fish’ who is literally drowning under misplaced guilt over a car crash. Whereas Tessa in ‘Care’ had me so riled up I could have slapped her. But then I also want to make her tea and toast, lend her a pair of shoes and a coat. I would also invite over Mira (from ‘When She is old and I am Famous’) to help her forget her condescending cousin. See, Orringer has created characters that not only breathe underwater, but leap off the page.

I can’t recommend this short story collection highly enough that if you ask nicely enough I may even lean out my copy**.

* ‘lend’ being the operative word

** Actually no, I think I am still much too attached to the characters - perhaps if you offer them tea and toast too then I'll consider it.

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