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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.

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.

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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.

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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

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