The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

I Wonder About the Trees (review of Breathe by Sarah Crossan)

Sarah Crossan
Bloomsbury 2012

It’s been a long time since anyone could breathe easily.  Humankind has destroyed the earth’s forests, polluted its oceans and left the world with an oxygen level of only 6%.  Unable to breathe in the outside world, what is left of the population has taken up residence in large pods, where super-conglomerate and government, Breathe, provide them with clean air. The world being what it is, some have better air than others with society split into Premiums (nicer houses, unlimited air supply, better jobs) and Auxiliaries, or subs (limited air, menial positions and cramped living conditions).  This is the world as inhabited by Bea, Quinn and Alina. Bea is an auxiliary who, while aware of the system’s inherent unfairness believes that she can better herself and her family’s position while Quinn is a Premium who is becoming increasingly aware of the advantages his life gives him over best friend Bea. Alina is another sub, but unlike Bea, one who is fighting for a fairer world. Through a series of coincidences, these three unlikely allies find themselves in the world outside the pod and quickly discover that all is not what it seems, a discovery that puts them all in mortal danger – and not just from lack of air.

Breathe uses a multi-narrative structure with our three protagonists given alternating chapters in which to tell their stories.  Of the three, Alina is probably the most instantly arresting with her tale of terrorism gone wrong leading to a frantic escape from authorities.  Having crossed paths briefly with Premium Quinn she has no problem in exploiting his obvious crush on her in order to aide her disappearance and once outside the pod does her best to ditch both him and Bea. While her motivations are understandable, Alina doesn’t come over particularly well. She at times seems arrogant, makes rash decisions and shows nearly no empathy for the first half of the book. Later, however, it becomes clear that Alina is scared – scared of the knowledge she holds, scared of Breathe and also scared of the rebels and their domineering leader, Petra.  Her fear makes her not only more likable but also more believable and allows her character to become courageous rather than just impetuous. 

Bea is pretty much Alina’s polar opposite. Thoughtful, kind and stoical she thinks with her heart rather than her head, but never to anyone’s detriment (more, in fact, to their advantage). As her eyes are opened to the reality of life outside the pod, her backbone steels noticeably and her determination to do the right thing is heartening, even when her worry is tangible.  From the start, her crush on Quinn (not to mention her inability to act on it) screams of teenage angst in a way that anyone who has ever suffered from unrequited love at 16 can relate to – it’s charmingly and heartbreakingly written.  In fact, the friendship between Quinn and Bea is one of the high points of the entire book. 

Quinn himself is the most believable character of the lot. Son of a demanding father, Quinn seems unsure of what he wants from life.  He suffers from a lingering awareness that he is a living example of all that is unfair within the pod and his desire, once given the opportunity; to change things is heartening to read.  His crush on Alina is authentically focussed on her, er, comely figure and pretty face while his relationship evolves beautifully over the course of the story.  Other characters populating the world are rather underwritten, but Quinn’s father is continually interesting and the rebels are, if familiar to anyone who has read anything involving rebellion, satisfyingly committed to the cause.  The darker roles are fulfilled by Cain (head honcho and all round power in the pod) and Petra (leader of the rebellion).  Both are frightening in that they seem rather unhinged, yet they too often descend into caricature.  They are clearly meant to illustrate two extremes of belief, but this has been done far better elsewhere (most successfully in Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series) and undermines the worlds they are meant to represent.

Sadly, this rather poor characterisation of villains is not the only weak point in Breathe. Stepping onto a stage that already contains more than its fill of dystopian tales, Breathe fails to offer anything particularly startling or new.  The premise of a world running low on air is an interesting one, but is poorly explained and requires an unusually large suspension of belief.  Equally, while the protagonists are interesting enough, none of them (with the exception, towards the end, of Quinn) are particularly compelling and certainly don’t stand out amid the increasingly long list of dystopian rebels. Sarah Crossan’s writing, while enjoyable, again fails to make a lasting impression and though the end of Breathe leaves readers with several interesting possibilities only time will tell if the story itself has engendered in them a real need to find out what happens next.  While there is nothing wrong with Breathe, neither is there anything massively right with it.  However, for readers who have yet to sample dystopian fiction (there must be a few of you left, right?) this may well be the book for you.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Breathe is published on 11th October in the UK. Many thanks to the publisher for sending us this title to review.

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