Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Going Deep: The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander

Today we are sixteen. Happy birthday, Eddie.

It still doesn't feel real. To me, he's not gone. My twin lives inside my head and is part of me. Sometimes, my hands and feet get extremely cold and I know it's not me feeling cold, it's Eddie, so I wrap myself up in a blanket to make sure he's okay. I suppose I eat for two.

Since Eddie's hand slipped out of hers in the shallows and a current carried him away to drown, Elsie has felt his presence with her all the time. And although it's her birthday, it's Eddie's, too. And it's not a happy birthday. Her brother Dillon is growing gaunt and distracted, her mother is drinking gin openly, and her father seems not there even when he is present, which is more and more infrequent. Since Eddie was lost in the dark waters of Black Isle, her family seems to have been holding their breath, afraid of what is not known and left unspoken about Eddie's disappearance in the sea.

Overweight and withdrawn, Elsie finds a solitary refuge in a derelict boathouse, where she can see the ocean where Eddie vanished, where she can watch her schoolmates meeting on the beach. But one day she sees the "boat boys" from the new dive shop on the pier, pushing and shoving each other, seemingly daring each other to jump into the still icy waters, and she is oddly compelled to join in.

"Chicken!" Tay calls. "Come on--it's fine. I'll catch you."

I take a step closer to the edge and watch the white foam swilling. I try not to think about the kelp down there--the worst kind, thick and slithery. The others keep calling me into the water, hollering and clucking.

I can't believe I'm doing this. But it's too late. I'm already running to the end of the wall, and then I'm flying, falling. The cold rides up my body as I go down, piercing my bones like a thousand glass splinters. The water looks black in every direction as I fall headfirst into the immense space below. There's a silence in my head, and I let the current take me.

Under the water, Elsie's mind flashes back to the day of Eddie's drowning. It seems Dillon was there and the other boys, but her father was gone from the beach where he had just been. And where was her mother? It's somewhere all there, somewhere in the dark, clear water of her memory, if she can go deep enough.

Strangely, Elsie feels that she must master free diving; she must go into the deep beyond the shore to follow Eddie, to find the answer to the unknowns about that day. After her first jump, Tay and Danny pull her from the water, but Elsie knows she must go back, she must master the art of not breathing to go deep enough, and Tay offers to teach her. Elsie finds that she has a talent for free diving and can stay under water longer and longer as she works at it. As the summer goes by, Elsie and Tay are drawn to each other, as if each is the missing piece, the part of the puzzle that will enable them to understand the meaning, the truth of that day when Eddie was lost, and they find themselves falling in love.

But Elsie's family is falling apart. Dad leaves suddenly one day, stuffing some bags in his car and gone. Dillon's eating disorder progresses to full-blown anorexia, and Mom seems to see and care about none of it. Tay goes away for a while, and Elsie emerges as the strong one, the one who has the will to find out the truth in Eddie's death that drives them apart and yet binds them together--her family, Tay, the other boys, and herself. Who among them let Eddie go, let him be taken by the rip current into the depths? Or did they all? How deep will Elsie have to dive to find the truth, and can she survive when she does?

Sarah Alexander's The Art of Not Breathing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) ably sustains the metaphor of dark secrets lying beneath the surface in a coming-of-age novel in which romance, danger, a mystery of an unexplained death, and the mystery of what is hidden deep in the mind is plumbed by a compelling main character who risks dying to find freedom in what lies below and above. Among the backwash of dystopic novels in which teen literature is awash, young adult readers will find this deep, realistic, and suspenseful story a challenging but welcome change.

. . . . suddenly longing to be back in the water, to feel the open space around me, to feel the power in my legs and the pressure in my lungs as I kick for the surface.

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