As a cursory glance at my bookshelf will show, I’m a huge Stephen King fan, so it should come as no surprise that when I decided to pen a Christmas-themed book review, my thoughts turned to The Breathing Method. One of four novellas that make up the Different Seasons collection, The Breathing Method is the moving tale of a young woman’s extreme dedication to her unborn child, set amidst the backdrop of the festive season.
(Interesting aside: This collection also includes the stories that would become the basis for The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me and Apt Pupil; to date, The Breathing Method is yet to make the jump to the silver screen – which is something I would happily remedy if given the chance!)
The story includes a fun framing sequence set in the (then) present day, which touches on the immortality of stories compared to storytellers and also serves to tie the novella in with King’s semi-unified fictional universe. But really, the main concern for the bulk of page count is the narrative related by elderly physician Emlyn McCarron, which details a bizarre phenomena he experienced in the 1930s while treating Sandra Stansfield, a single pregnant woman.
The young McCarron describes the warm relationship that soon develops between himself and Stansfield, as he comes to appreciate her courage, wit and defiant sense of dignity in the face of a society which refused to support a woman carrying an illegitimate child on either a financial or interpersonal basis.
At this point, King does well not to fall into the easy trap of taking us the down the familiar and well-worn “doomed romance” path, and the elderly McCarron is quick to downplay suggestions of an intimate relationship between doctor and patient (although he does admit to being “a little” in love with Stansfield for one brief moment, which is enough of a tease for the reader).
As part of his treatment of Stansfield and her baby, McCarron proscribes the “breathing method” of the title, a then-revolutionary technique designed to assist mothers through childbirth. Together, the pair seem destined to successfully deliver Stansfield’s baby, and it is only thanks to the foreshadowing provided early on by McCarron’s narration that we know things will end in tragedy.
Throughout the tale, King’s excellent world-building skills and seemingly effortless ability to evoke a specific time period are on display. He does this through the use of carefully selected details which make the world seem real, lending the tale an astounding level of credibility. It’s this same sense of verisimilitude, coupled with the signposting upfront regarding the overall fantastic nature of the story, that allows the reader to swallow the impossible events that arise during the finale.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
And what a finale it is. As McCarron’s tale approaches its conclusion, Stansfield is heavily in labour and racing towards the hospital in the middle of an icy winter night, when the unthinkable happens: her cab crashes. While the cabdriver emerges unscathed, brave, beautiful Sandra Stansfield is decapitated, and her child’s future looks grimmer than Martin Freeman at the National Television Awards that one time.
By this time, young McCarron is on the scene and about to take action when he realises something both terrifying and remarkable: despite the recent shift in geographic circumstances between Stansfield’s head and her neck, she is somehow still performing her special breathing exercises.
Overcoming his horror and accepting this “cheap magic” for the miracle it is, McCarron delivers her healthy baby son, and upon seeing the child, Stansfield at last dies, having exceeded the highest expectations one could set of any mother, single or otherwise.
(Honestly, I don’t care how freaky this sounds – the moment where Stansfield sees her son, smiles and mouths the word “boy” as her severed neck gurgles out the sound is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful things I’ve ever read.)
Wrapping up his amazing story, McCarron elaborates that he used his position within the medical fraternity to keep tabs on the child post-adoption, but this (and the present-day bookend sequence that follows) is largely overshadowed by the reader’s lingering memory of Sandra Stansfield’s haunting final moments, and the beautiful, terrible power of her love for her child.
And make no mistake; rather than telling a saccharine “love conquers all” story (not that I have an issue with those types of story, when well told), King seems interested in exploring the dual nature of love as something to be both admired and feared, something that is utterly natural and yet capable of pushing people into the realm of the unnatural should their heart’s desire be strong enough.
In addition to considering the nature of love, King also has some interesting things to say about social and gender politics as illustrated in the plight of Stansfield as a pregnant single woman. As usual, he is quite harsh on the injustice and cruelty of society overall, but optimistic concerning the potential for individuals like Stansfield and McCarron to stand up to these forces, and in some small way, achieve some good (in this instance, the birth and ongoing life of Stansfield’s son).
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
The Breathing Method is a brilliantly told short story that perfectly displays King’s mastery of the form, and is a fine choice of reading material this Christmas should you find yourself tired of the traditional Yuletide catalogue.