Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel begins with the main character’s husband falling ill. Michaela and Gerard, an esteemed historian of science, have come to New Mexico so that he can take up a short-term fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Research. But after some time in the local hospital, Gerard dies, leaving Michaela alone in the isolated house they have rented. From there, the novel explores what happens to Michaela as she reckons with what Oates refers to as ‘the savagery of grief’.
In Breathe, grief is not only savage. It’s cruel and it’s fierce. There are several descriptions of the smell of Michaela’s ‘rank animal rage’, of her body’s ‘sour animal-odors of grief, despair’ and of ‘the rancid smell of animal panic’. She loses weight, cannot sleep and, ‘in her feral state’, begins eating only what she can hold in her hand, ‘not taking time to prepare food out of an embarrassment to be eating alone, as an animal eats alone’. Michaela’s grip on reality is tenuous at best. She sees apparitions of Gerard while teaching at a local university and working on her husband’s unfinished manuscript at an outdoor cafe. Oates’s use of alternating points of view, switching between second and third persons, highlights Michaela’s distress even further: ‘Head throbs with pain for you haven’t been able to sleep for more than a few fitful minutes at a time for several nights.’
Oates weaves descriptions of the stark landscape and blinding sun of New Mexico through the plot, as well as references to Pueblo and Navajo peoples. Michaela, for instance, learns that Gerard wanted to come to New Mexico to learn the ‘endangered’ Kiwaan language of the Kawa tribe (as far