Book review: Try Not To Breathe

‘Try Not to Breathe’ is the gripping story of a girl who is attacked when she is 15 and spends the next 15 years in a coma with some degree of awareness, writes Sue Leonard.

Holly Seddon

Corvus, €16.99

SINCE the phenomenal success of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, there has been a flurry of similar page-turners in the genre that writer Marian Keyes has couched as Grip Lit. 

But back in 2010, when the debut writer Holly Seddon got the idea for Try Not to Breathe, the publishing world was in a very different place.

“There was 100% no plan to hit the zeitgeist,” says Holly, when we meet to discuss her novel. “I wasn’t hugely reading at the time, anyway. And throughout the process I was blissfully unaware of what else was bubbling away.”

A lovely, natural interviewee, Holly is clearly bowled over by her novel’s early success. 

“It’s a nice feeling to be joining that thrust of activity, but if I had known I would be compared to those books, I think it would have choked me a bit in the writing.”

Holly has always wanted to write a novel. After school she tried to get into journalism, but, finding that difficult, ended up in telesales. 

Meanwhile she kept rejecting college places, because, having left home at 17, she was desperate to earn money and start living. Then, when she was 21, her first baby, a girl, was born.

“That was a happy accident. I continued working and took some courses with Open University, because I had started to regret not going. My second child, a boy, arrived the following year.”

Frustrated at the lack of journalistic work, Holly started a music website, writing most of the content, but sometimes getting others to do so.

“It cost me money, but it taught me how to be an editor, how to plan a schedule, and how to interview.” 

It also gained her the love of her life. 

“James was one of the people who wrote for me,” she says. “Then he became my friend, and then my husband. He’s incredibly supportive.”

Gaining some paid jobs on charity websites, Holly then moved from Birmingham to London where she secured a job with the then fledgling, Daily Mail Online.

“It was young and plucky, and full of people like me in their mid-twenties. It was a riot!” From there, she went to The Sun, and then back to full-time freelancing.

“I tried writing a novel a few times, but always abandoned it because I hadn’t planned properly and went steaming in. I’d get not quite half way and grind to a halt. Try Not To Breathe felt different from the start. Amy came into my head when I heard a radio show discussing people in a vegetative state.”

It’s a fabulous read; as fast and furious as anything in the genre, but a lot more insightful.

When Amy was 15, in 1995, she was raped, and left for dead. Ever since she’s been in hospital, in a coma, but left with some awareness of her surroundings. Fast forward to 2010, and enter Alex, a journalist whose drinking problem cost her her job at The Times.

Freelancing; writing about a coma ward, Alex recognises Amy, and, remembering the case, decides to write about her.

Then there’s Amy’s boyfriend, Jake, who, 15 years later, is finding life hard. He is married, with a baby on the way, but he can’t quite let go of the past. As Amy’s abductor, he is still on the loose.

Finishing the book, I continued to think about it, mesmerised by the characters and moved by all that had happened to them.

“This time I knew what was going to happen. I’d left my job and had more time, and I thought about the book when I wasn’t writing. Amy was in my head. 

"Alex, initially, was there to serve a purpose; to find out what had happened to Amy. Only when I started writing, Alex as a person came together.” She found the writing emotional at times.

“It was heartbreaking writing Amy’s bits. There was all that unfulfilled passion and potential. People being stopped in their prime, and slowly becoming aware of that is just devastating.”

She laughs.

“Amy was constantly in my head. There were so many burnt baked beans, burnt cakes and hungry children.” Once the book was complete, Holly looked for an agent.

“I was quite strategic. One of my best friends from Mail Online days, Ilana Fox is an author, and I’ve watched her go through the process. I made a list of agents concentrating on the ones with an editorial background who developed debut authors in some way. 

"Nicola Barr was top of my list. I sent her three chapters and a synopsis, and she emailed me back straight away.

“She asked for the rest; I panicked and spent all night rewriting, and she liked it. It needed work, and we met. Her notes were always spot on.”

Holly now has four children, two with James, and the family recently moved to Amsterdam.

“The children — now aged from 14 down to one — really love it there,” she says. 

“They do miss things — every so often they want beans on toast, and they miss the same things as I do, their friends, and the ease of understanding, but it’s a lovely city.” Currently writing book number two, she says that her time, recently, has freed up.

“When we lived in Kent, my husband commuted to London. Driving him to the station was a real headache. Now he cycles to work.

“He travels a lot, and I write at night. And recently, when I spent a week in New York, I left the baby with him. I’d been breast feeding at night, and in that week, my poor husband weaned the baby and got him sleeping through. 

@Sleeping without a baby lying next to me has been life changing. It’s made a huge difference to my productivity.”

Had the attack described in Try Not To Breathe been set in the present day, phone records might have made it easier for police to solve the crime. Did Holly deliberately set it in an era before technology ruled? She shakes her head.

“I was 15 in 1995 and I started writing the book in 2010, so I was 30, the same age as Alex and Amy. I hadn’t calculated things any further than that. But you’re right. It’s lucky.

“I’m aware, writing my second book that things have changed since. Alex wouldn’t be looking at friends united. With Twitter and Find My Own Home, you can’t kidnap anyone so easily anymore.”

Once Holly and her agent were happy with the book, it took a while to secure a deal. But she is more than happy with her publishers. 

“They’re a small team. It feels like they are all passionate about the book. And after the initial deal, there was a flurry of sales. 

"We sold to Germany, the USA, Russia, Taiwan, Poland; and on the day my husband got the offer to move to the Netherlands, we got a Dutch deal.”

Does Holly have an ambition? “This is everything. I’ve got so many stories in my head. I want to be able to get them all out without drying up, or with expectation becoming a problem.”

There is so much to enjoy, and to learn about in Try Not To Breathe. What would Holly most like readers to take from it?

“The importance of friendship,” she says, and her eyes fill, as she thinks of her closest confidantes.

“How restoring it can be to have a really good friend. Platonic love means so much, having nobody is the worst fate. At one time, Amy doesn’t know she has anybody, and Alex has nobody. The unlikely friendship they form affirms both of them.”


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