Reviews: ‘The Porcupine’ and ‘The Trick Is To Keep Breathing’

The Porcupine by Julian Barnes ** 9780099540144
‘Stoyo Petkanov, the deposed Party leader of a former Soviet satellite country, is on trial. His adversary, the prosecutor general, stands for the new government’s ideals and liberal certainties, and is attempting to ensnare Petkanov with the dictator’s own totalitarian laws. But Petkanov is not beaten yet. He has been given his chance to fight back and he takes it with a vengeance, to the increasing discomfort and surprise of those around him. In this sharp, powerful novel Julian Barnes examines one for the most dramatic political downfalls of our times – that of Eastern Europe.’

I have read around four of Barnes’ books to date, and simply cannot make my mind up as to whether I enjoy him as an author.  Some of his works have definitely been better than others, although I must admit that my favourite so far has been The Sense of an Ending, which I only gave a three-star rating.  I borrowed The Porcupine from the library because it looked interesting and was relatively short.  I must admit that I wasn’t overly sold on it.

I liked the idea of a crumbling Soviet state described in the blurb far more than I enjoyed Barnes’ execution.  He can definitely write, but The Porcupine simply did not grab me at all.  It might perhaps had been better had it been longer, but if I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have had the patience to complete it had that been the case.  This novella could have presented some originality, but it read like rather a dull semi-historical account.  There is no real flair to the piece, as I have found with the majority of Barnes’ books which I have read.  To cut a long story short, he is an author whom I’m going to move to my ‘please avoid in order to avoid reading disappointment’ pile.


The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway *****
9781784870133‘From the corner of a darkened room Joy Stone watches herself. As memories of the deaths of her lover and mother surface unbidden, life for Joy narrows – to negotiating each day, each encounter, each second; to finding the trick to keep living. Told with shattering clarity and wry wit, this is a Scottish classic fit for our time.’

I have wanted to read this for absolutely ages.  I am quite familiar with Galloway’s work, having read both volumes of her autobiographies which have been published thus far, and her collected short stories, but I hadn’t got to any of her novels before spotting this in the library.

I was expecting such to be the case, but The Trick Is To Keep Breathing is beautifully written from the beginning.  Indeed, from the first paragraph alone, I knew that I would be awarding it at least a four-star, if not a five-star review.  I must admit that I did have highly elevated hopes as to how good it would be, but it has wonderfully surpassed them all.  Galloway uses the stream-of-consciousness technique to great effect, rendering her narrator’s voice almost breathless at times.  This novel presents a simple premise, which has been both beautifully and believably executed.

There is an astounding amount of depth to it.  It is as though Galloway has clawed away at every inch of Joy in order to learn every little thing it is possible to know about her.  The Trick Is To Keep Breathing is not just a splendid novel; it is a masterpiece, and that is not a word that I apply to literature very often.

Purchase from The Book Depository


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