My primary school was a tiny place, one so small that it had no play area to speak of. It did, however, look on to a vast park that was–and still is–a favourite landing place for the city’s hot air balloons. If I’m up early enough, I often see them scudding along overhead before sinking into slumber in the park. But as much as I associate that park with the homecoming of balloons, I do remember an event that was quite the opposite. When I was perhaps four or five, my school held a balloon release event (this seemed marvellous at the time, when I had not yet been conditioned by years of eco-friendly children’s television programming to consider things like the environment). We attached messages to our balloons, and then released our colourful galleons, letting them drift away to conquer new lands (and perhaps meet their doom around a power line or two).
There is something so very evocative about balloons. To me, at least, they represent a journey of sorts. Perhaps one of loss; perhaps one of escape; perhaps one of letting go. All of these are evident in Ciara Geraghty’s Lifesaving for Beginners, a rich and nuanced novel of grief and self-discovery.
The book opens with a literal collision of past and present: a car accident involving Kat, a reclusive and pseudonymous bestselling author, and a woman who, though tragically killed at the scene, proves to be an integral link to a past that Kat has been avoiding since her teen years. Kat, in what everyone around her dubs as a miracle, walks away unscathed, but finds herself sinking into an existential malaise: she finds herself pushing away her partner Thomas as he tries to draw closer to her, is unable to commit to work on her contracted novel, and experiences nothing short of terror at the thought of her impending fortieth birthday.
Each of these concerns has something in common: they all represent change and growth, things of which Kat is desperately afraid. As the book progresses and we learn of how she is connected with the woman who dies in the car crash, we realise that Kat still has past demons with which she has not yet come to terms. It’s little wonder that she’s struggling to deal with the idea of those around her moving on to new stages in their lives when she’s still dealing with the issues brought about by an event that occurred during her teenage years.
For example, her brother Ed, a young man with Down’s Syndrome, now has a job and a girlfriend, both of which Kat, who is used to playing a sort of carer role towards her brother, continually attempts to undermine: she begs for Ed to come and visit her, asking him over for teen sleepover-style nights of movie watching and junk food bingeing. When her partner Thomas suggests that they move in together, Kat rebuffs him, petulantly complaining that she likes her house and the way that things are. Her editor’s conviction that it’s time for Kat to reveal her true identity is also a source of terror: there’s something safe and escapable about remaining pseudonymous and isolated.
But there’s one change in particular that seems to trigger the greatest reaction in Kat, and that’s her best friend Minnie’s newly announced pregnancy. The dynamics between Kat and Minnie are heartbreaking at best: Minnie is a high-achieving, charismatic woman who has recently married and is now expecting a baby. Kat, meanwhile, continues to cling to her friend in a way that’s desperately unhealthy, and continues to try to insert herself into a relationship where she is no longer plays the same role. When we learn about Kat’s past and how Minnie is one of the few who knows of it, we begin to understand just why Kat is the way that she is.
Although Kat is the true protagonist of the novel, the book is told through dual viewpoints: Kat’s, and that of Milo, a young boy whose mother was killed in the same crash from which Kat was lucky enough to walk away. Milo’s voice provides a warm, honest counterpoint to Kat’s, which is steeped in self-deception and evasiveness, and his viewpoint helps to round out Kat’s character as the novel unfolds and we see how these seemingly unrelated characters are connected. The two viewpoints complement each other beautifully, with Milo’s grief highlighting the way in which Kat has repressed her own grief; and his own growth and maturity highlighting Kat’s lack of the same.
When the two do meet, Milo is in a way a catalyst for Kat’s development and finally realised ability to let go of the past and to move on with her life; curiously, Kat also provides Milo with renewed hope for his own relationships and a new perspective regarding the way that life continues to move on even after the death of a loved one. Between Milo’s Lifesaving for Beginners classes and his wide-eyed reaction as he watches a balloon slip from the hand of a young boy, we see just how important it is to find a balance between holding on and letting go.
At turns moving and humorous, and full of beautifully drawn and complex characters, Lifesaving for Beginners is a delightful read, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to acquaint myself with Ciara Geraghty’s work. I suspect that Kat and Milo’s stories will continue to resonate with me each time I watch the balloons drift past my window in the pastel light of the early morning.
(See also my interview with Ciara Geraghty.)
With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy
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Other books by Ciara Geraghty: