Penguin Random House, $20.00,
Invisibly Breathing is Eileen Merriman’s third novel, and it offers more than your typical romance. Bullying, homophobia and being an outsider – Merriman tackles plenty of tough topics in this moving and delicate novel.
After the success of Merriman’s previous two novels, Pieces of You and Catch Me when You Fall, I had high expectations for this book, and Invisibly Breathing certainly doesn’t fail to live up to the standards of Merriman’s previous works. At its heart, Invisibly Breathing is a typical YA romance, but offers more than your average love story. Not least, Invisibly Breathing is centred around the relationship between Felix Catalan and Bailey Hunter, and its LGBT representation is welcome in a world where the inclusion of such groups in literature is long overdue. Thus, Merriman’s refreshing and modern take on romance is exactly where YA literature needs to be in 2019.
Combine modern romance with topics such as bullying and belonging, add in a distinct New Zealand flavour, and this book is a winner. Set in a familiar Wellington and told from the points of view of both Bailey and Felix, Merriman creates authentic and distinct character voices who narrate the story with a strong YA voice. Invisibly Breathing handles its tough topics with sensitivity and sophistication, and Merriman’s writing is brave and fierce when it comes to dealing with difficult ideas in our society.
Bailey and Felix are two unique characters who spring to life from the page. I loved to hear from both of their distinct voices, and the switching narration in this book is seamless. I could relate to Felix’s struggles with being an outsider, and he authentically describes the challenge of not fitting in: “I wish I wasn’t the weirdest sixteen-year-old guy in the universe.” Bailey is a charming and loveable character who faces a violent home life: unfortunately, a reality of New Zealand society. The one downfall of their romance is that it’s tacky and clichéd – their “insta-love” is an overused and unrealistic trope. However, their chemistry kept me on tenterhooks, and you’ll be cheering for both characters at the end.
As I have found with Merriman’s previous books, Invisibly Breathing takes a while to break into its voice. I found it initially hard to relate to Bailey and Felix; their early narratives lack the authenticity of the later teenage voice, and the story relies on clichés and tacky tropes to get going. Even the very first line was underwhelming, and some aspects of the novel seem to better fit in the 2000s, not in 2019. However, the novel redeems itself with a polished plot and a gripping climax that led me to demolish this book; the calibre of Merriman’s writing is simply one of the best in New Zealand’s YA scene, and she knows how to keep readers hooked.
While Invisibly Breathing may not deserve the title of “original”, Merriman does rising tension and a hooking plot in a way that only a real talent can do. Parts of the novel may be dated, but Merriman writes what teenagers want to read, and she certainly knows how to write it well. The charming romance of Invisibly Breathing will have you rooting for the unconventional love between Bailey and Felix, and will have you shedding a tear at the end, too.
Hannah Marshall is 16 and from Wellington.
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