Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon

By Ekta R. Garg

March 2, 2016

Genre: Mystery/thriller

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A freelance journalist comes across a story that could boost her failing career: that of a young woman living in a coma in a hospital for half her life. In order to write the story, however, the journalist will need to confront the challenges that contributed and ultimately caused her downfall. Short story author Holly Seddon offers readers Try Not to Breathe, a debut that builds with promise and then lets down readers in a major way.

Alex Dale spends her days following a meticulous routine: an early-morning run followed by a few hours of cobbling together inane freelance writing pieces. When she gets to lunch, however, she faces her past. Alex is a functioning alcoholic. She has her addiction down to a science almost, knowing how much to drink and when, which only goes to emphasize that alcohol is now the only constant in her life. She’s lost everything else: a promising career, an adoring husband, and the chance to balance the scales of a life off kilter from her childhood.

Still, Alex has managed to pull herself together long enough to pursue a story about comatose patients in a special hospital ward in her London suburb. During a round of interviews one day, Alex comes across Amy Stevenson. The sight of Amy rouses Alex in a way she hasn’t felt in a long time.

She remembers the horrible circumstances that brought Amy to the hospital. At the age of 15 Amy disappeared one day on her walk home from school and was found several weeks later, alive but just barely. Since that time Amy has lived in the hospital in the same comatose state.

Alex feels a kinship with Amy. They’re both the same age, and neither got to enjoy the normal benefits of adulthood. As she works on the story about the new research that some comatose patients may have a limited ability to communicate with their caretakers, Alex begins to regain a little bit of her old self. The self who once had the opportunity to live the life Amy missed.

What starts as a story for Alex becomes a desperate need to find out who attacked Amy. However, with no family members on hand to answer questions and a case that went cold long before Alex found her, the truth about Amy’s attacker and the details of the tragedy might remain in the same place Amy is.

Author Holly Seddon employs some of the best elements of her experience with short fiction in Try Not to Breathe. Seddon keeps her cast of characters small, making it easy to follow Alex’s trajectory and her daily struggles with her addiction. Readers may censure Alex’s deliberate choices early in the novel, but as the book progresses Seddon builds sympathy for both Alex and Amy with expertise.

American readers, in particular, will find themselves charmed by British slang and the vernacular. While Seddon’s choice of language may simply fall in line with her native readership, it goes a long way to setting the scene and ensconcing readers in that world. Clearly Seddon knows how to draw the lines of her story with broad, definite strokes.

The novel’s ultimate failing, however, comes from the same area of Seddon’s strength. Readers will spend early pages guessing the identity of Amy’s attacker. When the revelation comes, readers may feel cheated. Seddon names a convenient perpetrator instead of challenging her characters, her readers, and even herself with a more subtle choice. The small cast of characters, so crucial in drawing readers into Alex and Amy’s world, works against Seddon in limiting her options for an antagonist. She spends so much time developing Alex and those closest to her that readers may feel like the real criminal was thrown in as an afterthought.

I recommend readers Borrow Try Not to Breathe for fans of British fiction and stories about England and English characters, with the caveat to be prepared for a major letdown at the end.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)