TEXT review

Of letting go and yet continuing on

review by Tessa Chudy


Linda Neil
Learning How to Breathe
University of Qld Press: St Lucia.
ISBN: 9780702237348
Pb, 360 pp, AUD26.95


I have always had a morbid dread of true stories. The crystalline quality of reality, and the knowledge that nothing can change what has already happened; that aching pain of certainty, and that sense of events being set in stone. So I must confess that I approached Learning How to Breathe with a certain apprehension, a sense of dread and a reluctance to face the tragedy that the story seemed to promise, but somehow I found myself swept along on the tide of Neil's prose and the bittersweet quality of her story where unexpected warmth is found in the face of pain and suffering. This seems to be part of Neil's rationale, examining pain and grief, and the process of dying, front on and, through that examination, coming to a greater understanding and acceptance of life and living. She takes the reader on a difficult and often confronting voyage of discovery that is strangely life affirming.

Linda Neil, the black sheep of her large musically gifted family, returns home to Brisbane to care for her mother Joan, a singing teacher who has been stricken with a strange and seemingly inexplicable illness that sees her losing her grasp on reality and the ability to do the things that had defined her life. Eventually she is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease but even the diagnosis emerges as small consolation, as medications with psychotic side effects seem barely to slow Joan's painful decline. Neil struggles to negotiate her mother's trials and the seeming indifference of the medical establishment to Joan's genuine suffering.

This hauntingly tragic but strangely triumphant memoir chronicles the final illness of a remarkable woman, the re-negotiation of familial relations, and the process of coming to terms with both death and life. The past and present intertwine with music, life, love, hope and the art of breathing.

Grief is a powerful underlying theme throughout, as are loss and the prospect of loss. The title refers to the art of breathing as it relates to Joan's vocation as a singing teacher who understands the role of the breath in singing, but it also refers to the importance of knowing how to breathe in coming to terms with life.

The story is composed of the threads of a family: the histories of individuals, the shared family histories, the memories and the lived realities. There is the lingering presence of Neil's late father, her grandmother, and the tangential paths taken by Neil and her siblings. Then there is the music, the way it permeates the history of the family and their perceptions - Joan's anguish at losing her ability to sing, to play music, and even to breathe. Neil and her mother learn to re-connect through music, especially through Neil's songs and old remembered favourites.

The presentation of life as a fabric that is composed of so many elements is part of what gives Learning How to Breathe its richness and its readability. The narrative arc is achingly sad, but is shot through with moments of unexpected beauty and warmth and hope, if not for Joan who becomes increasingly lost as her illness develops, then for her children, especially Neil who finds herself exploring the past to make sense of the present. The narrative is divided into three sections, each one aptly and resonantly titled - 'The Politics of Sadness', 'Learning How to Breathe' and 'The House of Love'. The same strands flow through each section as they each deal with a different stage in Joan's illness: the initial realisation that something is wrong; coping; and the final decline.

There is so much going on, both in the past and the present; the dead are rediscovered and re-voiced as are the still living, relationships shift and reform in strange convolutions. But perhaps the most powerful thread in Learning How to Breathe is the art of acceptance, of letting go and yet continuing on, of breathing in and breathing out, of coming to terms with life and death, and always remembering to breathe.



Tessa Chudy is currently undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Southern Cross University. She is especially interested in the intersection of gothic and noir and the role of the landscape in fiction. Tessa is also a visual artist and lives on the mid north coast of NSW.


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Vol 14 No 1 April 2010
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb