Let’s reflect on the state of Scottish literature of the 1980’s. James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks and Iain Rankin came to wider public attention and William McIllvaney continued to write gritty stories of West of Scotland hard men. As another cultural icon of the 80’s Frank McAvennie might have asked; ‘wherz the burdz?’ There was a new movement in Scottish writing, a renaissance that could also be found in other areas of the arts, but across the cultural board female voices were rare.

Janice Galloway’s ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’

by Alistair Braidwood

Liz Lochhead, known for her poetry and her plays, seemed to stand alone. Agnes Owens was writing incredible prose but no-one was promoting it or reading it and Muriel Spark, while still being lauded, was better known for her earlier work. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the situation was rectified, and it was changed in spectacular fashion. In 1990 two books by new female writers were published; A.L. Kennedy’s collection of short stories ‘Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains’ and Janice Galloway’s novel ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’. These books introduced readers to two of Scotland’s best writers who would produce consistently brilliant work over the next two decades.

‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ is ostensibly a novel about mental health, but is also about gender roles and expectations at the end of the 20th century. The central character of Joy Stone has just lost her married lover, a fellow teacher from the local school, in a terrible drowning accident while they were on holiday. The book contains short dream-like passages which piece together that dreadful event. On returning from overseas, Joy is ostracised by her colleagues and friends. She is the unwanted reminder of a less than perfect life, and it is not how people want to remember the dead. Everyone wishes Joy would disappear.

This includes Joy herself, at least in part. The novel is about coping, as the title suggests, and it pulls no punches in its depiction of a woman who is struggling to live. Galloway manages to convey a life where every little task becomes unimaginable, overwhelming and virtually impossible. The detail and the effort are beautifully rendered in Galloway’s unsentimental and often disconcerting writing. There is humour, but in context it is of the blackest kind. Joy Stone’s life has become a struggle and the struggle is one that she has to deal with on her own.

Although the secondary characters in the novel are important, this is Joy’s story.  Her relationships with her sister, mother, young lover and boss see her trying to fulfil expectations. Some of the different roles that are expected of women in the West Coast of Scotland are clearly set out. Joy is expected to be a daughter, a sister, a mother (figure), a lover and a whore. She tries to fulfil these roles for everyone, to be what is expected of her as the last time she did something for herself, something that offered happiness, it ended in tragedy. There is the undoubted sense that Joy feels she is being punished for having once put herself first and she is terrified to do this again.

Her illness leaves her looking for ways to either control her life or escape it. But really her anorexia, excessive drinking and unfulfilling sexual encounters are all aspects of the punishment that Joy feels she deserves. At one moment she clarifies how she feels: ‘The More Something Hurts, The More it can Teach Me’. The use of capitals adds to the importance of the sentence, but also apes the headlines of the magazines that she reads as another source of instruction as to how women are meant to act. It takes a subtle moment of recognition, of brief clarity, to signal hope for Joy’s future. This occurs when she says ‘No’ to her bookie boss Tony. It is the first time she says ‘No’ to anyone in the novel, and it is the moment that she begins to regain control of her life, and is the beginning of the end of the novel. When we leave Joy she is alone in the house, all is quiet except for the voice which says ‘I forgive you’. The voice is her own.

The subject of mental health deserves as serious consideration as ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ provides, but it rarely gets it. Many people who have either suffered from mental illness, or have known others who have, (which must be everyone) will recognise passages from the novel, and such recognition, the realisation that no-one is alone in suffering mental health problems, is hugely important. The terrifying depiction of Joy failing to cope on her own should make the reader realise that support and understanding are the least that people should expect when such illness strikes. It is this aspect of the novel, its incredible honesty, which makes this one of the most important Scottish novels of the last 30 years.

The novel’s influence didn’t end on the page. It was turned into a successful stage play by Michael Boyd when he was the artistic Director of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in the early 1990s. In the play the role of Joy was split between three actresses who each played an aspect of her personality. As a way of explaining the turmoil of Joy’s psyche this simple move was inspired, and I’m surprised that the play hasn’t been produced more often.

It also influenced Shirley Manson who took the title for the following Garbage song:


Galloway went on to have one of the most interesting and diverse careers of any Scottish writer. Her second novel ‘Foreign Parts’ was well received but it is her third novel ‘Clara’ that is perhaps her masterpiece. However, nothing she has done has the immediate impact of reading ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ for the first time, and no Scottish writer would match her depiction of someone whose life is falling apart until A.L. Kennedy’s ‘Paradise’ in 2004. I hope no-one is put off reading ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by this column. I can’t tell you that it is an easy or even truly enjoyable read, but it is one that enriches your life and your understanding of others. In my experience people either love this novel or hate it, but you can’t ignore it and we can ask no more from a book. If you’ve read it I’d love to know your thoughts.

Many commentators look at the 1980’s as the time when Scottish literature, and culture in general, was reborn, but it is the 1990’s that are far more interesting in terms of writing. Kelman and Banks produced their best novels (‘How Late it was, How Late’ and ‘The Bridge’ respectively), Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ exploded around the world and its success allowed writers who would never have been published to be read. This period produced writing that was of a quantity and quality that has been hard to follow.

Most importantly the nineties finally saw a real gender equality appear in Scottish writing, and in terms of quality I would argue that alongside Kennedy and Galloway, writers such as Louise Welsh, Zoe Strachan, Anne Donovan, Laura Hird, Jackie Kay and Ali Smith (who, in my opinion, stands shoulder to shoulder with James Kelman as the best Scottish writer at work today) were the real stars. At a time when many male writers were aping Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, it was female writers who were writing the more diverse and stylistically interesting novels and prose.


Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae

Next month’s novel: It’s the big one. It’s Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ and I imagine that opinions on it will be strong. It’s perhaps difficult to remember just what a phenomenon this book was when it was released as the success of the film version tends to distort that memory. But here was a book that everyone I knew would read, some of whom wouldn’t read another novel all decade. We can argue at a later point about the quality of what Irvine did next, but if only for ‘Trainspotting’ he secured justified legendary status.

Next 5 books:

  • Irvine Welsh Trainspotting (April)
  • Louise Welsh The Cutting Room (May)
  • Gordon Legge The Shoe (Jun)
  • Alan Bissett Boyracers (Jul)
  • Iain Banks The Wasp Factory (Aug)

Photo Credit: Murdo MacLeod