It is often said that art imitates life and Doug Johnstone‘s Breakers indeed holds a mirror to the world we live in and presents the reader with a realistic picture of 21st century Edinburgh.
Breakers follows the life of Tyler, a seventeen-year-old Edinburgh teenager, who comes from a very poor and dysfunctional family. His mother is an addict and his older brother and sister coerce him into robbing the houses of the rich. The only light in his life is his baby sister, Bean, and throughout the narrative the reader sees that every action Tyler takes is propelled by the desire to make Bean’s life better. The main twist of the story happens during one of the robberies when Billy, Tyler’s older brother, stabs a woman who turns out to be the wife of the biggest crime lord, Deke Holt. From this scene onwards the narrative speeds up and the reader sees Tyler struggling with problems and situations that no teenager should face. He finds solace in Bean and also Flick, a girl he meets during one of his solo break-ins. Flick is Tyler’s opposite; she comes from a wealthy family and initially seems to have everything that Tyler wants from life. Fast forward and Flick and Tyler form a bond that reveals that nothing is as simple as it looks on the surface and although Breakers is as close to reality as one can imagine, (spoiler) the story does have a happy ending for Tyler, Bean and Flick.
Doug Johnstone succeeds in portraying the socio-economic gulf that still exists nowadays and it is this main theme that makes the book so important. Life swirls us all into its daily vortex and it is easy to forget that nowadays, in 21st century Scotland there are so many people struggling, leading a life of poverty and destitution. The character of Tyler reminds us that this is indeed happening and the book does so in a very open and honest way. Breakers craftily portrays the realities of growing up poor, in a family that has problems, in a city that struggles with the flood of sad stories and people in need of help. The main plot line of the book, the stabbing of Holt’s life and the consequences that follow, is a story that everyone is familiar with and it doesn’t really shine on the page but the background and the characters do.
The array of characters reflect the social strata and the divide between them. There is the mob, there is Tyler’s family and there is Flick. Flick’s character, although a cliché, is the figure that shows the divide between rich and poor. She is also a reminder that people should not be so quick to judge as the reader finds out that although rich her family also has problems. The romantic aspect of the book, between Tyler and Flick, although somewhat enforced and predictable shows that there are people out there willing to help.
The character of Bean, Tyler’s baby sister, is the beacon of light that shows that there is good worth fighting for amidst all the ugliness and this is exactly what Tyler does. And then there is Tyler’s family, which is a realistic portrayal of addiction, abuse and children, who grow up in such destitution that they sometimes follow in their parents’ footsteps. Throughout the book Johnstone also subtly discusses the fact that the people who should be helping, the social care and the police, are too swamped and understaffed to manage it all which is another issue that really exists and needs addressing. Johnstone does not sugar coat anything and this is what makes the book a captivating read.
Although the story itself is somewhat predictable and a bit of a cliché, Breakers should definitely be on your TBR pile. It is a novel that really shines a light upon topics that nobody really likes discussing or even thinking about on a daily basis which is exactly why people should read it. Tyler and his family, although fictional, are based on reality and their family situation is one that many people experience and live through every single day. Doug Johnstone really captures the ugliness and beauty in the world and he does so through characters that will definitely tug at your heartstrings, which makes it a book well worth buying.
Photo courtesy of Chris Scott.
Breakers is available now, published by Orenda Books.