Try Not to Breathe: A Novel by Holly Seddon (Ballantine, February 2016)is an intriguing British mystery by an experienced journalist but a first-time novelist.
Alex Dale, a thirty-year-old freelance journalist and a closet alcoholic, begins research for a minor filler-story on long-term-care patients in the same hospital ward where Alex’s deceased mother was once an Alzheimer’s patient. Some of the patients in Bramble Ward, although not-legally brain-dead, have their bodies kept alive only by machines and require constant medical care. A few are trauma victims whose badly-beaten bodies eventually regained limited function but their minds still remain seemingly unresponsive. Alex discovers one of those unresponsive patients is thirty-year-old Amy Stephenson, a former classmate from the same grammar school Alex attended fifteen years ago. Then-fifteen-year-old Amy was abducted, brutalized, and left for dead.
Alex decides to do a major feature story on Amy. Amy isn’t in a coma. She can breathe on her own. Brain scans indicate parts of Amy’s brain are actively processing information. But she can’t communicate. It’s as if her mind is trapped inside of a paralyzed body. She can’t move, can’t speak. Amy’s assailant was never caught because Amy couldn’t tell anyone who had attacked her.
I’m giving Try Not to Breathe five stars, my highest recommendation, not because the writing is spectacular or the plot brilliantly original. It rates five stars because the author makes the characters come alive. The reader desperately hopes Alex, Jacob, Tom, Matt, and Amy can overcome their human frailties, find ways to adapt to their present circumstances, and emerge happy and whole from the deep holes each of the characters has dug for herself or himself. Life is complicated, and family life often becomes unbearably complex and complicated.
Seddon alternates POV between each of the major characters, allowing the reader brief glimpses into the reasoning processes that comprise a backstory that spans fifteen years. As a cognitive neuroscientist and medical researcher, I appreciated the mention of fMRIs and their importance to mapping brain function. The mystery of who did what to whom and when kept me reading all the way to the end.