Breathing Underwater starts with 13-year-old Freya and her 15-year-old brother Joe finding the body of a young fisherman washed up on the beach of the remote island where they are staying for the summer holidays. It is their first encounter with death in a book that centres on it. By the start of the second chapter, a year later, Joe is dead too.
Now 14, Freya returns to her grandparents’ house on the island for the first time since her brother’s accident. She comes alone, her parents unable to face the bad memories the place might bring to the surface. Whilst everything has changed at home, Freya finds the island is much the same as it always has been. The other teens who come back with their families year after year are back yet again, a little taller but otherwise apparently unchanged. Superficially at least, Freya finds it very easy to fit back into island life.
But she is haunted by what happened to Joe, and all the unanswered questions she has. This, she realises, is what drew her back to the island, and that urge was stronger than a desire to avoid the scene of the accident. As she obsesses over getting answers from the others, she slowly comes to understand that, despite appearances, everything and everyone is moving on, and hasn’t really stopped doing so in the past twelve months.
It’s a short novel, largely uneventful, but feels full of rich characters and their insights, all drawn together by a girl who feels out of step with the world, or that the world is now out of step with her, jarred off course by the death of Joe. This has of course affected her more than it has affected most other people, but she gradually reaches an understanding that allows her to move on too, without feeling that this is betraying her brother. The world hasn’t stopped for her either.
Though the book centres on death, it ends up being about life, really, as many novels about facing mortality tend to be. Death here isn’t anything sensational, though Julia Green does not trivialise it or pretend it’s something that means something different to teenagers than what it means to adults.
I am currently reading the sequel, Bringing the Summer, about Freya when she reaches and surpasses the age at which Joe died, and reading the novels in tandem seems to have been a good idea.