Author: Anne-Sophie Brasme
Genre: Psychological Fiction
Number of Pages: 128
First, let’s take a moment to consider that this author of this slim French novel wrote it when she was sixteen. If you’re a wannabe writer like me, you’re probably equal parts awestruck and pissed off by this. I can’t wait to see what she writes now that she’s graduated high school. I found this book sitting in all it’s obscure glory on a shelf in an antiques fair (God bless Antiques fairs!) I’d never heard of it before but I decided to give it a chance.
Breathe is narrated by a bright but extremely psychologically disturbed young woman who is telling the story from prison, where she’s been incarcerated for murdering a classmate. The girl’s name is Charlene, and she feels little remorse but does suffer from a humdinger case of special snowflake syndrome. She’s disgusted by the ordinariness of everyone around her, especially her emotionally distant parents. Anything that’s happened to her that seems like it would be legitimately traumatic is brushed aside in favor of micro-dramas that she reads into as being cataclysmic.
As a sulky teenage loner, Charlene is unexpectedly befriended by queen bee Sarah, and suddenly Sarah is her entire universe. She follows Sarah around like a hangdog, subservient butler and basically loses her identity to this dynamic and charming girl. When Sarah begins to hurt Charlene and humiliates her in front of her friends, Charlene is a glutton for punishment. Her self-centered parents have no idea of the extent of the sick relationship until it’s too late.
Charlene made me cringe. It was almost like she was too believable. I wondered if she had BPD, but the author never put a label on her. I had very little sympathy for her and even less sympathy for her victim, who honestly came off as a sociopath who needed a sick little fangirl to validate her. But psychologically, this book took my breath away. There are no easy answers provided for any of the characters’ behavior but there was something about it that felt very real.
For better or worse, the author seems to have an extremely strong understanding of mental illness and the point where an impressionable young person’s perception of reality dissolves. The book has a strong sense of claustrophobia as you rattle around in this girl’s head trying to get a grip of what’s real and what isn’t, and the metaphor of the title asserts itself in a number of unexpected ways.
The only real fault I could find with this book is that there were multiple references to Albert Camus and there was even a excerpt from The Stranger included at one point. It felt a little too much like fan service, and this story stands on it’s own without the protagonist making direct allusions to Meursault. That said, I’m glad books like this exist, I like to see truly twisted unreliable narrators that are women once in a while. I will read anything this author writes, and I hope more people discover this book.