The Silence Between Breaths | Cath Staincliffe | 2016 | Constable | 272p | Review copy | Buy the book
It’s April 2015 and it’s another ordinary day for passengers and crew aboard the 10:35 train from Piccadilly, Manchester, to Euston, London. Except, no day is ever really ordinary for those who have places to be, things they must do.
Jeff has an interview. He really doesn’t want to be late. Caroline is worrying about her elderly mother but at last, today, she has the chance to have some time for herself. Naz has dreams. He wants to run his own restaurant, serving a fusion of Indian and Western food, but for now he’s doing the best he can collecting rubbish and dealing with the public aboard a busy train. Holly is looking forward to a shopping jolly but there’s something about Jeff that has caught her eye. Meg is off for a brief holiday with Diana, her partner of many, many years. She has something to tell her when the time’s right. Nick is a bit of a git, most people would agree, but today he’s off to a family wedding with his wife and kids. If only they would leave him in peace. Rhona is on a business trip, knowing she must impress the colleagues sitting beside her, but her mind is on her daughter who is not as well as she could be. And then there’s Saheel, the loner with the bag that he will not let out of his grip.
All these lives come together for a few hours in the claustrophobic confines of a train that keeps being stopped for one reason or another. Tempers are easily frayed. But, as time passes, little connections are formed between some of them. It all helps to make the time pass.
The Silence Between Breaths is an utterly engrossing, terrifyingly real thriller, which stays in the mind for such a long time after the last page is turned. On the surface, it follows the familiar pattern of a disaster movie, with sections moving to and fro between each of the main protagonists as the clock ticks towards catastrophe. But such a description doesn’t do justice to the skill and incredible empathy with which Cath Staincliffe breathes life into her characters. Each of these people is fully rounded, all very different, some more likeable than others, one despicable, but each with a backstory that, in many ways, could be considered rather mundane but is actually so fascinating, because it feels real, in one case chillingly so. In one of these stories, the reader might recognise themselves.
There are many individual stories that appeal in the novel but the characters of Jeff, Holly and Naz are impossible to forget. I also felt deep affection for Caroline.
But then there’s the horror and it is appalling. I found sections of the novel almost too harrowing to read. I cried and cried, not just because of the terror but also because Cath Staincliffe had made me care for these people so much. And, in the aftermath, we are drawn into the group of survivors and watch as they try to live with what has happened and to understand it.
The Silence Between Breaths is beautifully written. It also reflects on some large and significant themes, not least of which is how terrorism affects the families of those who commit the outrage. Life isn’t simple and this incredible novel shows how complicated life is for everyone on board that train, for those who survived and for those who didn’t, as well as for all their families. This novel made me look around, not to look for threats and dangers, but to look at everyone else, carrying out their daily lives just as I do, each with their concerns, dreams and worries. We’re all in it together although heaven forbid that any of us should ever have to experience anything that happens here.
Cath Staincliffe has created an immensely harrowing, powerful and sad read that is also impossible to put down. Out of all the books I’ll read this year, this is one of those I’ll remember the most and for every good reason. Outstanding and heartbreaking in equal measure.
I was delighted to be asked to be part of the blog tour for this wonderful novel. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.