Passengers boarding the 10.35 train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston are bound for work, assignations, reunions, holidays or new starts, with no idea that their journey is about to be brutally curtailed. Holly has just landed her dream job, which should make life a lot easier than it has been, and Jeff is heading for his first ever work interview after months of unemployment. They end up sitting next to each other. Onboard customer service assistant, Naz, dreams of better things as he collects rubbish from the passengers. And in the middle of the carriage sits Saheel, carrying a deadly rucksack . . .
With The Silence Between Breaths, Cath Staincliffe takes on the mammoth task of sectioning off each chapter to different characters. And there are a lot of characters; as well as the previously mentioned Holly, Jeff, Naz and Saheel, we also have the bigoted Nick, travelling with his family; Caroline, on her way to meet an old university friend; single mum Rhona, who is travelling for work but just wants to be at home with her daughter, and Meg, heading off on holiday with her partner Diana, and their dog, Boss. It’s a pretty big task, and it might be hard to keep track of them all, but for the fact that Staincliffe’s characterisation makes each one feel distinct and entirely real.
Chief amongst the characters are Jeff and Holly, who find themselves sitting next to each other on the packed train and allow an initially terse and confrontational introduction develop into something a little more flirtatious, and packed with potential for the future. Of course this future is set to be brutally interrupted by the actions of Saheel, a young chemistry student who has made the decision that radicalised people all over the world make on what seems like a daily basis; to sacrifice his life and those of others to draw attention to his cause.
We get to learn more about Saheel through his own sections, but also from the perspective of the only character given her own perspective who isn’t on the train – his sister Kulsoom. Through her, we learn not only exactly what Saheel is planning to do, but how the actions of terrorists like this affect the family they leave behind; a family who isn’t committed to such a radical way of life, and who also have to come to terms with the devastating loss of a family member.
It is of course, a very timely story, with this kind of brutal act being in the forefront of everyone’s minds, given the global events we are exposed to so frequently. References to the 2015 election, the upcoming (at the time) EU Referendum, and other topical events, help to place this very firmly in and of its time.
But the characters are the story’s true accomplishment. Keeping a cast of characters this big straight, interesting and sympathetic (in most cases) is not an easy task, but Staincliffe manages it, and left me regretting that I had to say goodbye to them.
The Silence Between Breaths
First published: 22nd September 2016
Review copy provided by publisher