A journey of self acceptance and love, Natalya Newman
16 November 2020
Eileen Merriman’s third YA novel, Invisibly Breathing follows the story of the social outcast, Felix Catalan, and the unknown new kid, Bailey Hunter, in a journey of self acceptance and love that could have the potential to create something neither boy could have imagined.
After an encounter with Bailey in first his Physics class and then when he joined the judo club, Felix finds himself being more and more drawn toward Bailey and he can’t seem to figure out why. Bailey catches himself watching Felix out of the corner of his eye when he thinks nobody is watching him. Nobody, at least, except Felix.
In Bailey, Felix has the opportunity to find someone who will see him as he is, but in this case, such a simple step into friendship may not be what it seems.
In Felix, Bailey sees a chance of comfort, friendship and maybe something more. But is it worth risking the safety of his siblings if his father finds out? Both Felix and Bailey must find ways to face their demons and confront their fears throughout their journey. Otherwise both of their lives could fall apart before they had been truly lived.
‘I wish I wasn’t the weirdest sixteen-year-old guy in the universe.’
‘If I were a five, I’d be shaped like a pentagon, with sharp, perfect edges and rules that can’t be changed. A solid two-pronged base, with a pointy roof that reached for the sky. There’d be magic in my walls, safety in my angles. I wish I were a five.’
Instead, he’s stuck as a four-out-of-ten, or so says Zero, one of the many who seems to find joy in tormenting him.
He wishes everything would make more sense, like his numbers. Why couldn’t people be as predictable as his thousand-steps-exactly between home and school? People are weird. Felix finds himself struggling to deal with his appearance and perception of himself, his parents are constantly fighting and he knows there’s something they’re not telling him. On top of that, some truths are being hidden in his home life that threaten to tear his idea of a family apart.
When his thousand-steps-exactly on the way to school are miscounted, Felix knows his day is doomed to be crappy. There’s a new kid at school in his Physics class, Bailey Hunter. He has a stutter and plays basketball and judo, and he’s already got more friends than Felix despite being there for only a week. Yet there’s something about him that seems to draw Felix in. Maybe it’s the way Bailey waves at him from the basketball court, or when he writes a note in the corner of Felix’s Physics book. Either way, he knows that something is changing, and he isn’t entirely sure he wants to know what.
Bailey Hunter is the new kid. Completely normal on the outside and with no connections within the school. He’s moved to Wellington from Auckland, away from everything he has ever known and forced to leave his friends and maybe something more behind. He has his hands full taking care of his four younger siblings and trying to protect them from their dad’s unstable moods. Bailey notices his father drinking more and listening less, and his mother sits back and does little to help. His idea of a family is already messed up, but what scares him is the idea that he could turn out like his father.
Nobody notices the real reason behind his bruises at school. Nobody questions his explanations behind them. I was injured at judo. I was play-fighting with my brothers. Nobody notices. Until somebody does. There’s a boy in his Physics class named Felix Catalan. He has slate-gray eyes and he smiled at Bailey that day during Physics.
Felix Catalan and Bailey Hunter are different. They are different from their peers, but also different from each other. Merriman guides the story of these two boys and uses their characters to expertly convey important topics such as domestic abuse, homophobia, bullying, love, divorce and self-acceptance. Her portrayal of the emotions and thoughts of the characters behind each of these themes come together to create a touching and riveting story.
The cover is deceptively simple in design, but the muted colours of blue and white create a calm and focused style to contrast the strong issues covered within the story. The image in the cover also implies the concept of two people joining together to create something new, which also provides a simple and unassuming idea of the themes surrounding the story.
This read is interesting because although it covers the topic of sexuality, LGBTQ+ relationships and homophobia, Merriman does not let them become the only overwhelming and significant occurrences to happen during the story. This YA novel casually works towards normalising LGBTQ+ relationships.
In terms of normalising LGBTQ+ relationships, this book reminds me of Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. If you have enjoyed reading any of Levithan’s work, then I would recommend Invisibly Breathing as many of the themes and issues it looks at can be found throughout his books. Some of Becky Albertalli’s novels, such as Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, cover various degrees of self-acceptance, LGBTQ+ and several other things shown in Invisibly Breathing. This book covers these topics effectively and shows them in a new light, such as the emotional manipulation used by some of the adults in this novel.
Overall, this YA novel is a tale of two boys who live in a world and society where they are constantly faced with decisions and problems. In every second, they have the opportunity to fall to pieces or to grow stronger. They need to face their past and problems in time to save their true selves, or the two may lose themselves forever.
- Natalya is a Year 11 student at Huanui College in Whangarei.