Book review: Breathe Deep and Swim by Jenna Marcus

(cover image courtesy BooksGoSocial via NetGalley)

Grappling with a traumatic situation is never easy.

But as Breathe Deep & Swim from Jenna Marcus explores with quiet intensity and a real sense of belonging, there is a power that comes from going through something so challenging with someone you love solidly and unswervingly by your side.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Thomas is a 14-year-old teenager in Florida whose trauma has long, shared roots.

Abandoned by his mother when he was only a few years old, and living with a father who seems to regard parenthood, especially of two artistically talented sons, to be a burden in his wholly blue collar world, Wolfgang or Wolf as he is often called (he prefers the former), has a lot on his young plate.

He finds considerable salvation in reading, his starkly empty bedroom’s main adornment being a cluttered bookcase full of the many paperback books he has acquired over the years, the most important ones annotated with his insights which he has written in over many years. (Breathe Deep & Swim functions, in part, as a love letter to books and the majesty and transformative power of storytelling in literature.)

But his emotional mainstay, without any question, is his older, 16-year-old brother, Van Gogh, who, apart from always being there for his sibling, exhibits a fearlessness and a plunge-in-and-see-what-happens attitude to life that Wolfgang demonstrably lacks.

Together, these brothers somehow manage to find a way to get through life in a world that doesn’t much seem to care if they are there or not, with a father who openly mocks Wolfgang’s proclivity for reading wherever and whenever he can (Wolf isn’t even remotely musical like his namesake) and Van Gogh’s talent for painting (he, at least, is proof of some form of nominative determinism).

“Alone with my books, I determined that, like with my clothes, I could only take the essentials. But how do you determine which books are essential? They were all important to me, every single one, whether they were assigned or I’d chosen them myself. Each book carried a memory for me. I could tell you exactly when I read and reread each of the texts. Only a few were annotated, though. These were irreplaceable, so these would be the ones I needed to take.” P. 36)

If all of that lingering, longstanding trauma isn’t enough, Wolfgang discovers his dad dead from coronavirus one day in the small green house they share, yet another victim of a pandemic that, in the United States alone, saw at least 600,000 people fatally succumb to this virulent disease.

While neither boy is gripped by immense sadness for their dad’s passing – sadly, there was just too much trauma attached to a man who seemed to resent their existence on a daily basis – it soon dawns on Van Gogh that if they are found in the house with their dad, they’ll be forced into state care and not have any opportunity to try and find their mother who left the family years earlier and might have returned home to The Bronx, New York City.

As the first novel this reviewer has read set in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic which has come to define the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, Marcus does an exemplary job of referencing the omnipresence of the disease without being defined by it.

She is also savvy enough to address some issues that may come from the boys taking flight from a home in which someone has died from COVID and potentially spreading it to people around them.

Jenna Marcus (image courtesy Goodreads)

Wolfgang, being more timid and careful and in need of clearly defined reassurance than his brother, is hesitant to go rushing from the home as Van Gogh is demanding they do but acquiesces when his brother explains that they must go or their lives may be forever altered by being split apart by a system that won’t recognise how pivotal they are to each other’s lives.

Their willingness, masks firmly in place and social distancing clearly observed, to head out in a world full of the virus from a home rife with it, is driven by trauma and the need to escape it and forge a better future – Van Gogh reasons their mother will be more likely to take them in if they appear on her doorstep – and Breathe Deep & Swim draws on their desperate impelling need to explain why they undertake so perilous a journey at a time when breathing itself seems to be an act of danger and defiance all by itself.

It’s this willingness to hit the road and hope for the best, admittedly more of a Van Gogh imperative than something Wolfgang happily embraces, that informs the enduring theme of the book which is about the power of tenacity to hold you aloft when everything around you seems to want to sink you.

In less capable hands, Breathe Deep & Swim might have seemed like a twee exercise in inspirationally pushing forward but Marcus draws the boys richly and fully and sculpts a narrative that gives their desperate act a muscularity and an intense necessity that underscores how for some people, learning to hang in there is something they must do, no other options provided, simply to survive.

Wolfgang doesn’t want to rush out of the house but he does. He doesn’t want to go on the road without the certainty of an assured outcome but he does. He only really does it because Van Gogh says it will be fine, and he trusts his brother implicitly – the bond between the brothers is heartwarming and one of the main emotional drivers of an already emotionally powerfully YA novel – but partly because his mother’s catchphrase (“Breathe deep and swim”), one of the few things he remembers about her, gives him enough strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“Even though Van Gogh was still shaking his head at me, I started steadily into his eyes.

‘You’re not going to die,’ I promised. ‘You need to trust me. Do you trust me?’

My brother didn’t nod, shake his head, or even acknowledge that he’d heard me. I didn’t know whether or not he was considering this question. Like it or not, he needed to trust my instincts in that moment, as I had always trusted him, no matter what.” (P. 333)

As Van and Wolf, as people including their dad liked to refer to them, forge an obstacle-strewn path to New York City, Wolfgang comes to understand learns salient lessons about what it is to be tenacious, driven home by a number of cards and photos they discover in a combination-locked box which go someway to documenting who their mother was, though they leave as many questions unaddressed as they actually answer.

Breathe Deep & Swim is one of those immersively rich novels which takes a hard and sustained look at trauma, both lifelong and immediate, and asks how anyone can possibly survive all that.

The answer, and there is nothing simplistic about Marcus’s nuanced and layered storytelling and rich, affecting charactaerisation, is that while hanging in there has a great deal to do with it, driven by a hope that is less Disney-esque than robustly able to withstand all kinds of assaults, it is the people who stand in the corner with you who make all the difference.

While Wolfgang is definitely the centre of the story in Breathe Deep & Swim, it is his enduring bond with his brother, one forged in trauma and expressed through love, care and mutual support, both at home and on the road, that defines this sweet but intensely moving novel.

No one wants to ever be in a place where their lives are wholly on the line and in the hands of someone else, but if you are, and Marcus acknowledges it won’t be easy or pretty, then there is nothing you need more than someone special by your side, and a recurring mantra than urges you on, all evidence to the contrary.

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