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1990s Books in Translation Novella

Breathing Underwater – Marie Darrieussecq

Breathing Underwater Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Five words from the blurb: coast, daughter, clues, looking, mistake

Last year I was amazed by the power of the novel, Beside the Sea, and so asked for recommendations of books with a similar level of impact. Breathing Underwater was suggested as a book that not only shared the themes of Beside the Sea, but also the power. I found it interesting to compare the two novellas and I think this pair would make an interesting combination for those studying differences in writing style.

Breathing Underwater follows a woman who walks out on her husband and then takes her daughter to the seaside. Her husband hires a private detective to track them down, but this isn’t a fast-paced chase. The events are very slow, with each scene intricately described.

She leaves the child on top of the dune. She feels something like relief, a pause; the intuition that she can leave her there, absorbed by the sea, eyes straining from their sockets; in the redundancy of the fishing poles, sinkers, floats, and even the buckets and shovels. She won’t rush down to the beach straight away, she won’t run off to drown in the waves; unlike logs blazing in fireplaces or outdoor bonfires, the sea does not make itself our friend, it doesn’t crackle within arm’s reach: you look at it for a long time before it dawns on you that you can touch it.

The book had very little plot and I often found that the surroundings were so well described that I forgot what was happening.

The reader is a casual observer of events, never quite understanding what will happen next or the reasons for the actions. This was a problem for me as it meant that I felt no emotional connection to the characters. The multiple narrators in this short book increased this sense of detachment.

If you enjoy slow, thoughtful narratives then I’m sure you’ll love this book, but I’m afraid the writing was too flowery for me and I don’t think it came close to matching the emotional power of Beside the Sea.

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16 replies on “Breathing Underwater – Marie Darrieussecq”

Jackie, it may well have been me who suggested this. I love Beside the Sea, and I also love Breathing Underwater. I’m really not a fan of flowery writing, but for me the descriptions in Breathing underwater weren’t too expansive, they were a perfect externalisation of the innner world of a woman who has spent her adult life trapped, and the slow release of that pressure as she begins to breathe again for the first time, and explores the wonderful possibilities of freedom. The prose and its rhythms move in time with her journey, as does the changing setting as we move from the prison of the land to the endless horizon of the sea. Thinking about it again, it also has a lot in common with Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds

Dan, Yes – it was you who suggested this book :-) I can see why you love it so much, but it seems to be the exact opposite of everything I look for in a book (where Beside the Sea has everything right). Perhaps I’ll grow to appreciate it more as time goes on….

I think when you first reviewed Beside the Sea I tried to find it over here and it was nowhere to be found (at least at the library). I’m going to check again. We are a day late and a dollar short over here sometimes.

The writing seems to be very descriptive and detailed. If that’s an example of the way the entire book is written, I wouldn’t call this book powerful.

It interests me that the book recommended to you as similar to Beneath the Sea also has a water reference in the title. It sounds like that’s where the similarities between the two books end!

I like the occasional slow read and as long as I’m in the mood for it would enjoy this prose style. I’m going to add this book to one of my lists. I’m sorry it was’t quite what you were looking for, Jackie.

Both this and the other book you reference are new to me but they both sound intriguing! I rather like flowery language so this one might be my speed — thanks for the thoughtful review.

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