Breathless by Anne Sward

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Breathless by Anne Sward

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A child brought up in secluded safety discovers a dangerous friendship that might prove to be the most innocent time of her life.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 319 Date: March 2012
Publisher: MacLeHose
ISBN: 978-0857051035

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There are those who say that, on an individual level, books are like Marmite: you love it or you hate it. Oh, if only it were so easy.

Breathless is one of those that I neither love nor hate, and yet am not totally uninspired by either.

Lo. It means lynx. She comes from further north than where I'd thought such things may live, but then maybe the southern move of her family make the name appropriate. Angela Rafaela Lo Mård is her full name: for the archangel Rafael and his powers of healing, since she was born a sickly thing but managed to heal herself. Her mother wanted her to have a beautiful name. The rest of the family said she should have something people can pronounce: hence Lo.

The family is really two families. Idun and Björn, Anna and Aron had grown up together in the north of Sweden, and when they moved south they did together too. Bought a big house, sight unseen, for everyone to live in together.

It is into this extended family come proto commune that Lo is born. She is far from the first of the children and grandchildren by the time she comes along, and she has plenty of adults to love and look after her. Too much love, maybe, her mother will say later.

Then, her mother spoke maybe as one who wasn't given to much love.

They live in their rambling house in the village that isn't really a village, but merely 'the outskirts', near the lake. It's a safe place to grow up in many ways, but everywhere has its dangers.

When Lo is six there is a fire in the field: the kind of fire that needs a huge community effort to stem. It's during the drama that she first spots him. The stranger. Lukas is thirteen years old, but Lo is determined to make a friend of him.

This turns into one of those special friendships that can never be understood from outside and scarcely so from within. Everyone is suspicious of what is happening between them, given the difference in their ages. Yet for a long time, it is all so innocent. They hide out in the Pearl Fisher's cottage hidden in the woods. They swim naked in the lake. They sleep, literally sleep, side by side through the summer nights.

Whenever they are caught there is trouble. For Lukas. Lukas, who can scarcely communicate with his Hungarian father who beats him for all manner of transgressions but refuses to try to understand his son. Lukas, who doesn't really know who he is but feels more Swedish than Hungarian. Withdrawn. Sad and often silent Lukas.

I'm giving no more away than the blurb by talking of Lo's fifteenth birthday and the Tivoli gardens and a whirlwind afternoon and evening, and a night which changes everything for ever: between them and for each of them.

I feel that I should love this book and yet I can't quite grasp it.

As a story of a misunderstood relationship, a failure to communicate, lost love, lost innocence, missed opportunities, a break with safety and a bid for freedom, an analysis even of what it means to be truly free, it could have been brilliant. Parts of it genuinely are. But for me the whole just doesn't hold together.

The structure fails it. It flits backwards and forwards. Lo is our narrator for most of it, but she skips between then and now (and maybe somewhere in between - the chronology is something you have to work out for yourself).

Perhaps I found the laden imagery to over-powering: her axe-wielding mother, long into the blind old age, her deserting father who could walk on water no matter how thin the ice.

There are many moments of sheer beauty, that I won't spoil by taking them out of context, and some powerful images. Snippets of wisdom too.

First I had a taste of sex, then of solitude, relished it like a thirst I had suppressed and now could not quench. Began to guard it like stolen goods. There is something inescapably Nordic about that, but also something that should have struck home for me more forcefully than it did.

The title is an homage to the Belmondo / Seberg film, which may have greater significance if you're more familiar with it than I am.

The subtitle who can explain the summer when childhood suddenly ends? doesn't capture the balance of the book. It's not even clear which summer that was… the penultimate summer of my childhood is offered as a specific marker, but did it end that next year with the Tivoli gardens or was it a year later when death entered the house?

How do I rate a book that I feel I have failed to understand? It's a maybe/maybe book. Some of you will adore it, others like me will feel somehow let down by it. In saying that I finally realise why: it engaged my intellect, but not my emotions. I was intrigued by Lo, but not enticed by her. As ever with a novel in translation you have to wonder how well it has been rendered, but one has to assume it fits well-enough with the original and on that basis, I have to say: not really for me.

If you like this, you'll love At the Edge of Light by Maria Peura

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Buy Breathless by Anne Sward at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Breathless by Anne Sward at


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