Book Review: The Place Between Breaths by An Na
A Review of The Place Between Breaths
Written by An Na
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2018
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading An Na’s latest book, The Place Between Breaths. It sounded like it might be a cerebral thriller, which it was. But it was so much more than that, too.
Throughout the novel we get to know Grace, who saw her mother deteriorate in the grips of schizophrenia, and then ultimately disappear from her life. Her mother has never been found, which has led Grace’s father on a desperate quest to find a cure for this debilitating illness. Grace interns at the lab where her father works. He is a headhunter, bringing in the top scientists from around the world to join forces in search of the key that will unlock a cure for Grace’s mother—the love of his life—if only they could find her.
This is a non-linear novel that uses the seasons of the year to anchor you in the story. Na is a master of imagery and it felt to me that her arresting descriptions of the weather coincided with Grace’s moods and mental state. I could be reading too much into it, but nothing in this book felt accidental.
In addition to jumping back and forth between the seasons and around in the story, the reader is also left to parse between reality and delusion. This made for an intriguing and gut-wrenching, but unenjoyable read. Though, I would argue that “enjoyable” was not the goal, and for this I was glad.
Though a novel, this did not read like an attempt to make schizophrenia into entertainment. This felt like a deft effort to bring understanding to an illness that continues to be misunderstood, despite decades of research. The portrayal of this mental illness and how it breaks the mind apart from the inside out was honest and elegant. It does not glorify the disease but rather exposes it in all its gruesome tragedy.
It held my attention the whole way through in the same way autobiographies on other mental illnesses have in the past. I’m thinking specifically of An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison and Wasted by Marya Hornbacher, which explore bipolar disorder and anorexia/bulimia, respectively.
Though I had a good idea where Na was leading the reader with the various characters in The Place Between Breaths, I didn’t feel satisfied with the conclusions or explanations for their presence, which was perhaps the point. The novel is purposely confusing, which lends itself well to an honest exploration of schizophrenia, but creates a problematic novel.
This was definitely worth the read, and I believe an important work for helping people understand what schizophrenia looks like from the inside out. But I think a casual reader may turn the last page feeling disappointed and confused. And maybe that’s fine. It’s a confusing illness, and to wrap up the story with a neat little bow would have been disingenuous. In the end, I appreciated the beauty and tragedy and clarity and confusion Na wove together to create this novel. I hadn’t read any of her works before, but I will be adding them to my reading list now.
This review originally appeared on NetGalley. I received a free Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) in exchange for my honest review of this title.
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