I’m not sure I’d have brought THE SILENCE BETWEEN BREATHS home if I’d known anything about it, and I certainly wouldn’t have picked it to read on a warm summer’s day after finishing a particularly harrowing book. I bought it last year purely because I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Cath Staincliffe and didn’t even look at the blurb (they’re so spoiler-y these days). Though now that I think about it most of her books have made me cry. I momentarily forgot that.
It tackles a grim subject.
We meet several people on a train from Manchester to London. A harried young man on his way to an interview for an apprenticeship. A family of four heading to the city for a wedding. A woman who has just scored her dream job and is going to do some shopping. An elderly lesbian couple and their dog off to start a walking holiday. The teenager currently working as a cleaner for the rail company but who dreams of running his own restaurant. A middle-aged woman meeting up with an old friend, needing a break from family pressures including a mother with dementia.
As always Staincliffe is very good at bringing these ‘ordinary’ people to life and making the reader care about and worry for them; even the ones who aren’t very pleasant. We are worried for them because there is also a young man called Saheel on the train. He is on a personal, holy mission of destruction.
The most interesting perspective of the novel is offered by Saheel’s 13-year old sister. She is at home alone wanting to work on an art project but her computer is broken so she decides to use her brother’s. And discovers what he is planning to do. Unable to contact anyone in her family she calls the police. Hoping they can stop him before he carries out the bombing he has described in a prepared video. And so begins all manner of heartache for her, her parents and a different brother. I imagine it happens in all cases of serious crime: that the loved ones of the perpetrators are at best forgotten but more likely to be actively vilified by association. It felt like a very timely message in this era of instant outrage and opinion-before-fact to be reminded that lots of different kinds of people are impacted when such horrendous incidents are planned. Or worse, actually happen.
The novel is basically a story in two acts and the second part is less successful for me, even though it did generate a tear or two but it is difficult to discuss without spoiling the plot somewhat. However, if you read the book’s official blurb you will know what happens so I will let on that the second half concerns the aftermath of ‘an incident’. What Staincliffe has written is not bad and some of it is quite moving as various characters struggle with their memories and losses and medical issues. But I did think this part of the book lacked something. There were opportunities to explore some complexities of the social and political consequences of these types of incidents that were ignored. The book seemed even to be setting the stage for some of this when it introduces one of the affected characters as a UKIP voter with some fairly bigoted views. Following the incident this is entirely ignored and while it may be that was the point – that such things are forgotten in times of real crisis – I’m not convinced that the way this character’s story arc played out demonstrated this.
Although it doesn’t occupy a significant portion of the book I think it would have been stronger without Saheel’s perspective appearing at all. It was a fairly bland characterisation in comparison with the others and offered nothing particularly new or insightful about the people who choose this kind of path. Perhaps more importantly I don’t think it added much to the story as it was the impact of his decisions and actions that were the driving narrative force not his inner thoughts (such as they were).
Staincliffe’s writing often tackles very topical issues and generally provides some real insight into the subject. LETTERS TO MY DAUGHTER’S KILLER is one of the best books I have read that explores the subject of domestic violence and its many victims for example. Here I thought the book engaging and at times moving but found it lacked the thought-provoking qualities I have come to expect from this author. She could however teach a masterclass in creating memorable characters from very ordinary people which is not a skill to be overlooked.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Little Brown 
Length 264 pages
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it