BIG ISSUE NATIONAL VENDOR WEEK
LEARN MORE
Books

Book reviews: The Fell and The Selfless Act of Breathing

Lockdown novel The Fell avoids self-indulgence and sanctimony, while The Selfless Act of Breathing should be pushed into the hands of friends, writes Patrick Maxwell.

The Fell is set during the coronavirus lockdown. Image: Tom Page (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It takes a daring novelist to be the first to bring the boredom, impotence, anger and mania of the last year and a half into their fiction, at least if they expect it to sell.

And a talented one as well, since such a restriction in life’s possibilities meant that descriptions of binge-watching, Zoom calls and losing one’s sense of taste left writers with little to work with. I suspect that for most readers a reminder of lockdown life is as welcome as having a lecture on the details of general anaesthetic after an operation.

Despite its brevity, The Fell by Sarah Moss manages to break out of the confines of the home for much
of its setting. If there is a weakness it is in the toil of trying to make the most mundane scenes of lockdown life seem worthy of Moss’s eloquence.

Fortunately, much of the book is centred around her characters’ struggles to break out of the stillness of isolation.

Too much of the period it describes has been summed up by other bodies in statistics about death, disease and debt, and too little has been spent properly describing it in words we can understand.

More than anything, Moss’s novel fulfils that purpose in creating the perspectives and monologues of those we wouldn’t see in the headlines or be forced to look upon in hospital beds.

Kate, a waitress told to self-isolate in November of last year, is left to look after her son Matt for their days of mandated seclusion. Anguished by house arrest, and realising the futility of rules she supported in theory
but cannot follow in practice, she leaves the house for an evening walk on the nearby fells, left deserted in the
winter gloom.

Matt, upstairs and gaming away, is unaware of his mother’s excursion. Only Alice, their kindly elderly neighbour, sees her walking off. Tripping over a rock on the fells, Kate is severely injured in the dark cold of the night, her son left waiting alone as the police helicopters attempt to find her.

The most enriching parts of the novel lie in the internal monologues of Kate and Alice as they contemplate the inanity of their situations: Alice in her homely comfort fretting about the madness of a society locking itself away for the supposed benefit of people like her, and Kate riven by a conflicted mind as she breaks rule after rule in searching for release on the hills.

Lockdown gave ample space for many of us to wallow in self-pity, yet The Fell is never self-indulgent – there are no sanctimonious reminders of moral responsibility, only a distinct human sensitivity which is much more valuable than any charts, predictions or commands.

I cannot tell whether JJ Bola’s The Selfless Act of Breathing is life-affirming or not, given that its subject is one young man’s contemplation of life and the loss of it. Possessed by a daring turn of phrase and at times a beautifully powerful sense of personal poignancy, this largely first-person novel not only speaks to the people society ignores all too often, but to the feelings and frustrations we also try to repress.

While not a flawless book, it is one which should be pushed into the hands of friends accompanied by the question: do you feel like this too?

Patrick Maxwell is a writer and journalist.

@GerrymanderBlog

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

National Vendor Week 2024

A celebration of people who are working their way out of poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Family Politics by John O'Farrell review – a plea to engage with those whose views we abhor
Books

Family Politics by John O'Farrell review – a plea to engage with those whose views we abhor

Mrs Gulliver by Valerie Martin review – finding agency in a patriarchy
Books

Mrs Gulliver by Valerie Martin review – finding agency in a patriarchy

Top 5 books with magical creatures, chosen by best-selling author Alex Bell
Books

Top 5 books with magical creatures, chosen by best-selling author Alex Bell

Freaks Out! by Luke Haines review – a righteous celebration of gloriously weird rock 'n' rollers
Books

Freaks Out! by Luke Haines review – a righteous celebration of gloriously weird rock 'n' rollers

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know