Beth is in some ways a protagonist familiar to readers of recent Irish fiction. She’s a young woman leaving home for the first time to begin a degree at Trinity College, this time not in English lit (that’s her room-mate) but psychology. Unlike Rooney’s Marianne or Louise Nealon’s Debbie, Beth is not literally or metaphorically a country girl but a 20-year-old former elite swimmer and the granddaughter of a famous Irish poet. Her coming of age is about solving the mystery of her grandfather’s life and death, and though that story involves mental illness, Beth herself remains well enough.
We meet Beth alone in the pool in Trinity’s sports complex. “After a hundred laps she feels calm and rejuvenated, her body pinging with the tremors of exercise. An old, good feeling.” We follow her out of the pool, across campus to her room where “cardboard boxes stand in a loose ring… like a Neolithic monument” and then watch her explore her new room-mate’s book and film collection.
Sadie, perfectly groomed in her exuberantly decorated bedroom, possessor of much good wine, is impressed when Beth admits that the poet whose selected works she’s studying is Beth’s grandfather, Benjamin Crowe.
Sadie introduces Beth, who is much more interested in Crowe than in psychology, to her tutor, post-doc Justin. Sadie fancies Justin but he flirts with Beth; she begins to go to his lectures and he takes to running into her at the pool, and then in the sauna. Beth enjoys the attention, keeps swimming, talks to her therapist, at weekends goes home to her mother and elderly grandmother, Lydia, who is sharp and funny and a vicious custodian of her late husband’s archive.
Justin, Beth remembers, once came to see Lydia, hoping for an interview and access to papers. She tells Lydia that Justin is sorry for being “aggressive and rude”. “Sorry, love,” replies Lydia. “I’ve no interest in the self-serving repentance of an ambitious little scholarly shit.”
Lydia and Sadie, similar characters at different stages of life, are the truth-tellers of this novel and perhaps its most attractive characters, sharp-tongued and loyal. It will take Beth most of the rest of the book to realise that Lydia is right about Justin.
The affair between the adulterous male professor and the pretty student ingenue is the backbone of the campus novel, but in this case carefully modulated. Justin is not Beth’s teacher, nor even in her department, and he’s not very much older than her, not a professor but a post-doc on a short-term contract. “I want this,” Beth says, sober and without constraint, as they first have sex, and she’s the one who ends it.
Despite having frozen on the starting block, turned her back on her Olympic hopes and repeated her Leaving Cert in the wake of a breakdown barely mentioned in the novel, Beth is not the fragile and self-destructive heroine of much new Irish fiction. She doesn’t drink much, eats well, and makes fully informed and interesting decisions about sex. As she begins to explore the archive in her grandmother’s attic room, it becomes clear that the abiding sense of darkness in Beth’s life is not about her athletic performance but about the untold story of her grandfather’s suicide.
Lydia allows Beth to read her grandfather’s papers, among which she finds an unpublished biography by a scholar who knew him well. This is the only literary text “quoted” in the novel; an astute move because, as AS Byatt showed in Possession, the problem with writing a novel about a poet is that you probably have to write some of the poems, which is easier with an obscure Victorian poet than a modern one whom everyone in the world of the novel can quote because he’s taught at school.
Crowe’s poems haunt the book, unspoken, and though the device is obvious it is successful. The biography leads Beth to its author and to a road trip across Ireland with Sadie, whose own home life turns out to be messy. Near the place where Crowe jumped off a cliff, Julie welcomes the girls, cooks for them and finally fills in the gaps in the family history Beth thought she had always known.
I enjoyed Holding Her Breath. The premise is familiar, but this is an appealing iteration, stylishly written, with strong female voices.