In her new children’s novel, The Deepest Breath, Irish author Meg Grehan follows a young girl who likes other girls on her journey to self-acceptance.
Author Meg Grehan opens her second novel, The Deepest Breath, by introducing Stevie – a girl who, at a glance, seems wonderfully sure of herself. “I know a lot of things/ About a lot of things,” the young narrator says, “But the thing I know the most about/ Is me.”
In prose as self-assured as Stevie herself appears, Grehan lets her narrator loose to offer a sweeping introduction to the things she loves most. “I know I like the colour purple,” she says. “And things that sparkle/ And science and books/ And cats and stars and space.”
What makes this character relatable for young readers, though, is the vulnerability that hides behind her mask of confidence. Stevie loves to know things, we soon learn, because by knowing about a thing she can feel less scared by it.
There are things she can’t know about, though. For one, there’s the mysterious sadness that sometimes comes over her mother – and Stevie’s relationship with her Mum, a smart single woman whose relationship with her child’s absent father is only hinted at, is beautifully drawn. Then, of course, there’s the biggest unknowable thing of all.
That thing, for Stevie, is the feeling that happens when she’s with her friend Chloe: “It’s a fizzy feeling,” she says, “And I don’t know what it is/ Exactly.” And so begins a story of self-discovery that’s beautifully told.
Grehan has already seen success as a writer presenting LGBT+ issues to young audiences. Her debut novel The Space Between, written for young adults, won the 2018 Eilís Dillon Award. The Deepest Breath, in turn, has been praised by award-winning author Deirdre Sullivan as “Incredibly artful, incredibly tender.”
The Deepest Breath forms part of a growing trend towards verse novels for children and young adults, already popularised by authors such as Sarah Crossan. A glance through any few pages of Grehan’s novel is enough to prove the merits of the form. With cleverly placed line breaks to mark hesitation and exuberant run-on stanzas to mark joy or fear, Grehan harnesses the power of verse to absorb her readers completely in Stevie’s inner world.
The logic of the novel’s storyline is arguably marred by one piece of misplaced information: we are left with little clarity, for most of the novel’s length, as to how much Stevie has already heard about lesbian relationships.
When we find out during the novel’s climax that she has known about same-sex attraction as a theoretical concept all along, and that she’s always known those close to her theoretically have no problem with it, it’s hard to imagine how those girl-on-girl relationships she’s heard about never came up as she struggled to identify her own feelings.
One piece of questionable plotting, however, can’t spoil what is otherwise a seamless narrative. Grehan’s verse flows like water, and her scenes – some tense, some thoughtful, and each slipping easily into the next – patiently follow the rises and falls of a young girl’s emotional life.
The Deepest Breath, published by Little Island, offers a crucial introduction to the world of LGBT+ relationships for kids aged 11+.
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