BookBrowse Reviews The Place Between Breaths by An Na

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The Place Between Breaths

by An Na

The Place Between Breaths by An Na X
The Place Between Breaths by An Na
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2018, 192 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2019, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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An Na's lyrical, intense novel merges subject and structure in an immersive and compassionate portrayal of life with mental illness.

Grace King seems like a young woman with a bright, even shining future. The daughter of a successful doctor who left his practice to lead recruitment efforts for a biomedical lab, Grace seems destined to follow in his footsteps. Even though she's only in high school, she has (entirely on her own merits) landed a competitive internship at the lab where her father works. Even if much of her responsibility involves sitting in the hallway babysitting centrifuges, Grace is surrounded by the brilliant, passionate researchers her father has gathered, people dedicated to finding genetic causes and effective therapies for illnesses that plague mind and body. Observant and creative, resilient and independent, Grace seems poised to take her place among them someday.

But secretly, Grace has doubts and fears. The driving force behind her father's ambition and her own scientific interests is the desire to find a cure for Grace's mother, who suffered from schizophrenia throughout Grace's early childhood and ultimately disappeared when Grace was five. Grace remembers her mother's vulnerability, her own anxieties, and even moments of abject terror when her mother's illness was at its peak. Grace's father, an optimist, has faith that a cure is possible; Grace is more pragmatic, and fears that even if a therapy were found, it would be too late for her mom. What's more, Grace has begun to hear the same terrifying train whistle that once terrified her mother - even though there are no train tracks anywhere near home or the lab.

An Na's novel has an innovative, even clever, structure, one that elegantly, and at times unnervingly, mirrors the feelings of disorientation, the breakdown between reality and visions, that can haunt a person with schizophrenia. Linked to seasons of the year – representing past, present, and future - and utilizing varying narrative voices and verb tense, chapters overlap and at times collide with one another, as Grace - and, by extension, the reader - grows increasingly unmoored from everything she thought she knew. Some readers may grow unsettled or frustrated by this approach, but thoughtful and patient readers will recognize and appreciate this inventive and empathic approach.

That's not to say that A Place Between Breaths resembles a protracted writing exercise; far from it. The novel is both lyrical in its language and compassionate in its emotion, as the author draws readers into Grace's world - and beyond their preconceptions about what it means to contend with mental illness. It can also be read as an extended meditation on the interwoven themes of faith and hope. "What is faith but the belief in your chosen religion?" Grace's mentor asks her. "What is faith but blind hope? Do you have faith in science? History? How many times has it all been proven wrong?" This emphasis on faith and hope is what propels the reader - and, one hopes, Grace - to a place beyond despair. An Na leaves many questions open-ended at the close of this slim but surprisingly suspenseful novel, leaving readers to ponder and discuss what might be next for Grace - and to harbor their own hopes for her future.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in May 2018, and has been updated for the March 2019 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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