September 2009 (Australia)
Review by Lorelei Vashti
When I was first offered this book to review I thought: Well, Ms Meyer, it seems that not only are you literary-minded but you’re also literally minded, because what you have given me here is a book about a Brisbane girl returning home to her family. Which, Angela—as you very well know—is the very same situation I was in when you flung this book at me. However, when I started reading I realised that maybe not everything in this world is about me after all, and once I got over the shock of that I was able to appreciate that Linda Neil’s story is very much her own, and a beautifully rendered one at that.
Learning How to Breathe is a memoir, the debut of musician-radio producer, Neil. It traces her relationship with her ailing mother, whom she is suddenly called home to take care of after years of being away. Using interviews with family members, stories from other relatives and friends, and of course, her own memories, Neil recounts what happens over the next decade as she witnesses her mother’s deteriorating health and records their experiences in various caring facilities. A shared love of music is the bond that helps mother and daughter reconnect during this difficult time, and Neil’s examination of their changing relationship is thoughtful and tender.
The childhood home is described with detailed affection. Neil’s mother, Joan, was a singing teacher and taught students out of her house in St Lucia, Brisbane, so the five children grew up surrounded by music. One of the nice touches about the book is Joan’s singing advice (which was published in various industry newsletters over the years) scattered throughout the story, helping us hear her voice in harmony with the voice of her daughter.
Neil plumbs her family history to understand where she has come from. Her self-characterisation as a bohemian-wild-child, who spent her youth playing electric violin on the streets of Sydney and living in the hills of Byron Bay before coming home as the prodigal daughter, seemed to me a little heavy-handed to begin with. But as the story and her relationship with her mum grows stronger, Neil seems to become clearer about her own development, and the writing grows too. By the end, I was overawed by the magnificent moments that fill the final half of the book—moments illustrating a family’s love.
What came across most beautifully for me in Neil’s writing is the way that she and her four siblings seemed to share and balance the role of caring for their mother over the many years of her illness. She skillfully depicts the ways each child is able to contribute their very different strengths. I adored these moments. The final few chapters are completely breathtaking, and as a reader you feel much rewarded at that point.
This book is about love, and the multifarious ways it can be expressed. It’s a book for anyone who has had to decide between caring for a loved one or institutionalising them. It’s a book for those who enjoy truthful stories, stories about discovering the light within the darkness, stories about music, and stories about Brisbane girls returning home to their family.
Lorelei Vashti is a writer and book editor with no fixed address, but that doesn’t mean she’s homeless. She swans around here in her dressing gown and here in her more professional attire. God knows what she wears here but it can’t be pretty.