Adam Thorpe Home

Between Each Breath

Publication date: 17/05/2007


Once 'England's most promising young composer' – now living comfortably in Hampstead with his wife Milly, an heiress – Jack Middleton is in mid-life decline, his career in free-fall.

When he visits Estonia for a three-week search for inspiration, he falls for a young waitress called Kaja, deeply bound up in the suffering of her country and the joy and danger of its new freedom. They embark on a passionate affair on a lonely island in a time warp. Then it's over.

But of course nothing is ever over. Still childless six years later, Jack and Milly's marriage shows the strain, but they battle on better than most – until the past returns with a vengeance. The crisis takes place over a month, against a precise calendar of background events, both minor and major.

Set in London and Estonia between 1999 and 2005 in the aftermath of the London bombings, as a hot, despondent summer drags on unnaturally into the autumn, Between Each Breath is a rich and often hilarious critique of Blair's Britain: decadent, bewildered, shallow, greedy, but knowing all the right buttons to press; knowing the language of compassion and abusing it.

A story of love and betrayal, of age and youth, of wealth and poverty, of the new Europe and the old Europe, of art and compromise, of youthful ideals and cynical weariness, Between Each Breath is a biting, timely satire and a moving examination of social and emotional disintegration.

This novel arose out of my experience as writer-in-residence at the Aldeburgh Music Festival, and from my affection for Estonia. I was dismayed by the Britain of Tony Blair's premiership: now the party is over, and we're standing in the debris with a hangover, firmly in the hands of the Tories, the novel feels a little premonitory.


Time Out

Mark Smith: July 4, 2007

Book of the week

Eggs are broken in the prologue to Between Each Breath, which describes a car crash in Estonia. It is one of a series of unfortunate events set in motion by British composer Jack Middleton, whose musical and marital mid-life crisis, examined throughout the rest of this brilliant novel, is a messy omelette indeed.

Jack first comes to Estonia in 1999, brooding over a copy of Anna Karenina (a hint that there is thwarted love afoot) and seeking inspiration for a musical project for the opening of the Millennium Dome: 'One British composer per country. I got Estonia.' He finds what he's looking for in the dacha (and arms) of a beautiful, twentysomething waitress. Her name, Kaja, means 'echo', so it is no great surprise when, six years later, she turns up, love child in tow, to endanger what remains of Jack's married life in north-west London.

For a novelist who has lived in southern France since before Blair came to power, Thorpe remains admirably attuned to the shortcomings and contradictions of twenty-first-century Britain. He delivers a story so steeped in the details of modern life - from the braying hypocrisy of Hampstead dinner parties to cheap lasagne from Lidl in Hayes (the novel's suffocating Crap Town) - that one can only assume Thorpe is no stranger to the low-cost airlines his hero berates for turning Estonia into a sex tourist's playground. Much of the book's London action unfolds in the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings, and the repetition of newspaper headlines evokes a bloated, media-run city high on terror.

For all its satirical clout, however, the novel's greatest strength is its intricate treatment of that which is deeply personal: the politics of adultery, the pain of childlessness and the misery of growing old unfulfilled. It is a rich yet realist book: sensuous, thoughtful and sad.

ABC Magazine (Daily Telegraph)

Tim Martin: May 27, 2007

For most of his career Adam Thorpe's esoteric conceits and beautifully turned prose have provided a blessed antidote to the increasing tendency in white male middle-class British authors to write about white male middle-class British characters and concerns. So when, in his eighth work of fiction, he turns his attention to the guilty rich of 21st-century Hampstead - at a time, moreover, when British fiction is awash with books about comfortable Londoners worrying their way through the Blair years - you expect the result to be something special.

Between Each Breath is the story of Jack Middleton, a fortyish contemporary classical composer whose output (minimal in both senses) is just about underwritten by a promising early reputation and the substantial wealth of his heiress wife Milly. In 1999, handed the job of portraying Estonia in a collaborative piece on Europe for the Millennium Dome, he goes to Tallinn on a research trip and has a brief but consuming fling with Kaja, a waitress he meets in a café. After giving her a false name and address he returns to London, where Milly, who doesn't know about the affair, miscarries their first child after a traffic accident.

Fast forward to 2005, the summer of the London bombings. Jack is still scratching lassitudinously away at his music; Milly is working for a green design company; they live alongside some moderately horrid neighbours in Hampstead, try earnestly to keep up with the latest fiction and music, say Whassup to each other, buy organic celery, you know the type. Then Kaja and her five-year-old son appear in London, on the trail of the boy's father, and Jack's well-fenced-out comfort zone starts to dwindle and cramp around him.

Thorpe is a poet as well as a novelist - his fifth collection, Birds with a Broken Wing (Cape £9), comes out at roughly the same time as this novel - and this is recognisably a poet's book, stuffed with small luminous details and off-kilter observations and permanently alert to the strange texture of things.

It's this, more than the book's moments of farce or satire, that accounts for it being so very funny as well as so affecting: Thorpe tracks the progress of thoughts in tiny analogous details, such as Jack musing grimly on his ungrateful nephews as "a jay shrieked like a child being murdered and floundered through the trees" or trying to explain his time with Kaja to his viola-playing best friend and finding it "like thinking about Mahler in text messages". Every page throws up some fresh and quietly bizarre image.

If there's a drawback to all this, it's in the resolution, where (it barely spoils things to say) Jack finds his muse again by breaking free of the shackles of wealth. This seems a bit pat, perhaps only because so much of the novel avoids cliché so deftly. Thorpe's satire is rarely broad, and even the most archetypal figures in the book - Milly's posh parents, for instance, or the City bloke next door - are made to seem far more than simple functions of narrative. When compared to Thorpe's other work, Between Each Breath is a chamber piece - it hasn't, for example, the linguistic virtuosity of Ulverton and Still or the technical intricacy of The Rules of Perspective. But it's still a hugely enjoyable book by a writer at the top of his game who's demonstrably still having great fun doing what he does. Long may that continue.


Rachel Cooke: June 17, 2007

In ten days' time the Pickfords vans will roll into Downing Street and Tony Blair will finally depart. Should you want to mark this special day, I suggest you buy not Alastair Campbell's forthcoming diaries but Adam Thorpe's new novel, Between Each Breath. It's a masterpiece. I have been waiting and waiting for a novel about Blair's Britain - for a book that does for him what Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up! or Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty did for Mrs Thatcher – and now, with immaculate timing, here it is. Several reviewers have described Between Each Breath as a great book about male cowardice, which is exactly right. But it's also a novel that perfectly captures, without ever mentioning the words Tony Blair or New Labour, the sickly downer of early promise followed by failed expectations, and sets it faultlessly against the backdrop of an anxiety-inducing hum of bombs on trains, illegal immigration, urban poverty and global warming. But perhaps I have made it sound dreary and earnest. It isn't. It's also hilarious. I can't remember the last time Hampstead dinner parties were satirised to such delicious effect.

Sunday Telegraph

David Robson: May 27, 2007

As a romantic lead, composer Jack Middleton ticks all the wrong boxes. He is on a trip to Estonia when his wife Milly rings from London to say that her period is late. Part of Jack is thrilled: they have been trying to have a child for years. Part of him panics. Making sure to take off his wedding ring first, he plunges headlong into an affair with Kaja, a pretty waitress. At one point, Milly rings again. 'Who was that?' asks Kaja when Jack puts the receiver down. 'My mother,' says Jack, poker-faced.

If this were a movie, every woman in the cinema would be hissing 'Bastard!' It is a tribute to Adam Thorpe's mastery of narrative that the two-timing Jack emerges as a sympathetic, even poignant, figure. He pays a brutal price for his fling in the Baltic. First, Milly loses her baby and is unable to conceive again. Then, six years later, Kaja turns up in London with a small boy of whom Jack may, or may not, be the father. As Jack struggles to do the decent thing, miserably unsure what the decent thing is, and further disoriented by the death of his mother, the novel builds to an unexpected climax, in which cricket plays a key role.

The ending, for me, is a brave near-miss, and not the real deal; but there is so much to enjoy along the way that one never feels short-changed. In his last novel, The Rules of Perspective, Thorpe effortlessly entered the world of fine art. Here he shows himself equally at home in the world of classical music, with its camp viola players, its embittered academics with double-barrelled names and its residual, faltering spirituality.

One does not associate Thorpe with comedy, but there are some laugh-aloud moments in Between Each Breath. Watch out for a hilarious scene in which a neighbour sympathises with Jack for having problems uncorking a bottle of wine, when he has actually been doing something far cruder. The two women between whom he must choose are both well drawn, without a trace of sentimentality, while a large supporting cast is expertly handled.

One has become so used to alpha-prose from Thorpe that it is a shock to the system when, during a bedroom scene, one comes across the word 'muzzle' instead of 'nuzzle'. Perhaps he - or his proof reader - was getting over-excited. This novel though is a stylish, sophisticated exploration of male neediness and frailty

Daily Telegraph

Ian Sansom: May 26, 2007

I've heard that they exist, but in 25 years of pretty serious, occasionally even strenuous, daily reading, I've never come across one before. Between Each Breath is a bona fide Hampstead adultery novel. There is no need to read another.

Adam Thorpe is brilliant. Utterly brilliant. I use the word advisedly, OED advisedly, the best a man can get: "brilliant ... distinguished by talent and cleverness''. Thorpe is distinguished exactly thus: profound, prolific, prodigious. His first novel, Ulverton (1992), was a masterpiece. If you haven't read it, you should. It was a chronicle of three centuries of an English village, told in different voices, using just about every first-person fictional device imaginable.

Ulverton would almost have been enough to prove his genius, but there have been other novels, and books of poetry, and short stories. You can't help but be in awe of Thorpe. But it's just possible that with Between Each Breath he's being too clever for his own good.

Jack Middleton is - or was - one of England's most promising young composers. His wife is the wealthy Milly du Crane, whose parents live in a stately pile in Hampshire. Jack visits Estonia, the home of his hero, the holy hermit-composer Arvo Pärt. While in Estonia, Jack has an affair with a waitress/violinist, Kaja, and promptly returns to England. Milly becomes pregnant; she miscarries (Jack is indirectly to blame). Five years later, Kaja turns up in London, with Jack's son in tow. Cue catastrophe.

In support of the main characters, Thorpe provides a cast of English eccentrics: Edward Cochrane, financial consultant on the brink; Jack's gay friend Howard Davenport; the appalling Roger Grove-Carey, "deeply embittered at not being recognised as the second Schoenberg''.

All the characters variously rage against the state of England. "How was Hull?'' Jack asks Milly. "Boots, Dixons, Primark, McDonald's, Waterstone's, Lunn Poly, Starbucks, Thomas Cook, Topshop,'' she replies. Jack in particular is sick of the place, and his place in it. "Those days with Kaja were the true potential of the gift; they had compelled him to be more than he had settled for. The trouble with England, he thought, was that it compelled you to be exactly that: what you had settled for, which was always less than you had originally imagined or anticipated. Or: what England had settled for you.''

Unfortunately, we can't take Jack's word for everything, not so much because he's an unreliable narrator, but because he's a self-righteous little shit, the sort of person who likes Pink Floyd because of their "use of the bass line as their harmonic front''. He's full of Alain de Botton-like insights, such as "When it comes down to it, there is no one who is not weird'' and "I spent the next two days fulfilling my vague suspicion that wherever you are, however exotic, gets submitted to your own level.'' As he admits, "my interviews sound like a fifth-former who hasn't yet got it together''. Then again, he does sometimes sound like a grown-up: "One day you are in a trying time, the next you are in a tragic time. And the trying time seems like a lovely, innocent time compared to the sad, unimaginable time of now.''

So here's the thing: I didn't like Jack Middleton; the reader is clearly not intended to like Jack Middleton. A lot of the characters are stereotypes. The plot is occasionally absurd and superfluous. And yet the book moved me so much that the denouement made me cry.

Why? Because Between Each Breath is melodrama of the highest order. There are references throughout the book to Madame Bovary, the classic combination, as every schoolboy knows, of realism and romanticism. Thorpe, I believe, may be so ambitious, so brilliant, he's actually trying to rewrite Flaubert: Jack, Milly and Kaja an Emma, Rodolphe and Charles for our age. I may be wrong. But the book is certainly a satire, like Flaubert's, on self-satisfied bourgeois culture. And like Flaubert, Thorpe may suffer the true indignity of the brilliant: being misread, misunderstood and misjudged.


D. J. Taylor: May 26, 2007

Exercised by the need to establish exactly what was going on in Adam Thorpe's long and accomplished new novel, I found myself making a list of the various fictional shapes into which Between Each Breath periodically morphs. First comes a relatively straightforward tale of deracination and upward mobility as practised by a lower-middle-class boy from Hayes taken up by a gang of Hampshire gentry.

There follows a much less straightforward account of the consequences of a closely observed transcultural love affair. Lurking in the wings, meanwhile, is one of those time-honoured sagas of marital strife in Hampstead, albeit with a decisive contemporary twist. Then, almost silently, all these threads are gathered up into a superlatively edgy chronicle of the bomb-torn London of summer 2005 with a few angry laments over yob culture thrown in for good measure. Finally there is its continual focus on a territory in which the modern novel rarely lingers: the way in which a creative artist, in this case a musician, goes about his work.

Or, this also being a novel about creative dead ends, fails to go about it. Jack Middleton, Thorpe's forty-something hero, is a once promising avant-garde composer who, disdaining the hand of academe and tune-fancying public alike, finds his career in free fall. Fetched up in Estonia in mid 1999, with a Millennium Night commission under his belt, he kicks over the traces of his happy marriage to Milly, an eco-conscious heiress, by way of a fling with tawny-haired, violin-playing Kaja. There follows a brief idyll at the family dacha on the Baltic island of Haaremaa, after which Jack, having tendered a false name and a vague promise of reunion, skips back to his newly pregnant wife and the well-heeled domesticity of NW3.

Whereupon it all starts to go horribly wrong. Milly loses the baby in an accident for which Jack feels largely responsible. The creative well-spring is dammed at source; ambitious youth is elbowing its way onto the rostrum. Then, half a decade later, gay music-teaching Howard, one of several sharply observed minor characters, brings news of a five-year-old Estonian viola prodigy named Jaan, lately entrusted to his tutorial care. Eyelid flickering behind the keyhole of Howard's spare room on an afternoon when Jaan's hotel receptionist mother comes to collect him, Jack divines that his past has followed him home.

The denouement, or rather the series of denouements, mingles private trauma and public unease with maximal discomfort to all concerned. Jack's attempt to save his marriage while establishing a relationship with his son are balanced by stake-outs at his blind and suicidal mother's death-bed and nervous journeys through a capital awash in communal terror. The figurative language, of which there is a great deal, is nearly always tethered to Jack's professional calling and his obsession with sound.

American tourists at the Globe call to each other 'like hoopoes'. Radio Test cricket, to which Jack obsessively attends, offers 'short, suspended silences and cries . . .wood-block percussives between the genial commentary'.

Hindsight might make Ulverton and Still, the novels which inaugurated Thorpe's career back in the early Nineties, look like a false start: heroic exercises in post-modern trickery, whereas his real talent is for what Kingsley Amis used to call 'human heart stuff'. At the same time Between Each Breath is full of fictional high-wire acts, silent foreshadowings and altogether glacial sleight of hand, not least in a redemptive ending which a reader attentive to the nuances of the opening chapter will already know to have been cancelled out. The determinism is deceptive, though, for the elemental human situations Thorpe coaxes into view nearly always canvass a sense of possibility rather than the thought of drawbridges slamming irrevocably down. Unlike its hero's contributions to the graveyard spots of late-night Radio Three, this is an extraordinary performance, and already, with seven months left to go, a prime candidate for my Novel of the Year.


Tibor Fischer: May 19, 2007

"All over London and further afield it was the same: wealth like a smell, like the air itself, ebbing and flowing and leaving the unfortunate millions who did not breathe it stranded further on their dry rock, grappling with badly fitting masks. To them, wealth was a poison, a gas."

Jack Middleton is a man who has it all: a successful career as a composer (not quite as successful as he'd like, but well-known to the producers at Radio 3), in demand at cultural indulgences around Europe, married to a wealthy woman, and the resident of a spacious home in Hampstead, with all its attendant leafy and culinary delights.

But on a trip to Estonia, he has a mild mid-life crisis. "I was sitting on a bench opposite the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral . . . wondered what the point of life was. Benches do this to you." So he decides he has to have a bit more, a bit on the side; he has a fling with a musically minded waitress, Kaja, on an isolated island, Haaremaa, which used to host a Soviet military base. The fallout from this affair is not to everyone's satisfaction.

Between Each Breath is Adam Thorpe's seventh novel, and he demonstrates the foresight and guile of the seasoned storyteller, coupled with a poet's ability to knock the language for six. Thorpe was writer-in-residence at the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and Arts and he acknowledges that the experience helped to fire this book.

The novel draws cheekily on those old chestnuts, the Hampstead dinner party, adultery and the yuppie in peril, but it has a grander sweep; it also aspires to be a state-of-the-nation statement, even an examination of the state of Europe. Much of it veers towards light comedy, even Feydeau-like farce with characters peering through keyholes. Between Each Breath will probably be energetically thumbed in musical circles as Thorpe does a very savage job of mocking contemporary music and composers (one of Jack's compositions is entitled "A Filing Cabinet on Fire in the Middle of the Street, with Caged Fox") while, paradoxically, at the same time convincingly conveying Jack's love of his profession.

The central characters are all well rounded. Jack's wife, Milly, is a Roedean-educated consultant on green matters, obsessed with carbon foot prints and the use of grey water, from a patrician family whose fortune and private estate are, no matter how he tries to deny it, a source of delight for Jack. Kaja, his Estonian lover, is at the other end of the social scale, with parents who live on a bleak estate "built in crumbly Soviet concrete".

However, the comedy is only part of the mix. Britain, outside of the Arcadian enchantment of Hampstead and Jack's in-laws' country seat, is a grim, moronic place (especially suburban Hayes, Jack's hometown) where you tend to get beaten up (although, ironically, Jack gets beaten up only in Tallinn, by a rampaging British stag-party). London comes out badly, "the number-one stressville" where only money matters, and where property is the obsession ("this house, whose value rose and accumulated wealth faster than either of them could earn through their work, their art").

Also rather depressing is the depiction of Jack's blind mother undergoing a slow death in hospital, although Thorpe is kinder to the NHS than many other contemporary novelists (perhaps because he lives in France). Six years after their affair, Kaja appears in London, with a young son, Jaan, in tow, a prodigy on the viola who, of course, is also Jack's son. Prompted by paternal urges, Jack gives Jaan piano lessons and an introduction to the mysteries of cricket.

Thorpe conjures up a whiff of the bunny-boiler around Kaya, but though none of her actions turns out to be dishonourable, her presence does explode Jack's life (there is a major strand about Jack's failure to have a child with his wife - IVF being another dominant feature of the modern novel as sperm counts fall). Thus he separates from Milly and loses the comfort of her bank account.

However, this expulsion from his Eden-on-the-Heath stirs Jack up. The novel ends with him returning to the island of Haaremaa to wander round like a tramp. He tunes brooks (à la Cornelius Cardew) to A, by repositioning stones in the waterflow, and manages to release the caged fox. "Squelching around in money is a really bad idea," he muses. "I think it kills everything in the end. I mean, everything."

Between Each Breath is funny, well-observed and thought-provoking. Man of the match for me was Jack's staggeringly irritating neighbour Edward Cochrane, a financier with an uncanny gift for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and always saying the wrong thing: a character who remarkably arouses both contempt and sympathy. As Jack remarks to himself when he learns that Edward was a child when his father committed suicide, "it meant he couldn't hate him any more, or not cleanly".

Daily Mail

Michael Arditti: May 18,2007

ON THE eve of the new Millennium, a group of British composers has been commissioned to write a collective piece in celebration of the new Europe.

Each is allotted a different country and Jack Middleton, the protagonist of Adam Thorpe's new novel, draws Estonia, to which he decamps for several weeks.

Jack, once hailed as 'England's most promising young composer', is in his late 30s and starved of inspiration.

He finds it in Kaja, a young violinist with whom he embarks on a passionate affair, before returning home to his rich wife, Milly.

When, six years later, by a coincidence which 'only happened in TV dramas and trash novels', Jack meets Kaja in London, his comfortable life falls apart.

Between Each Breath is certainly not a trash novel; it is, in fact, the best account of love across the Iron Curtain since Paul Bailey's 1998 Kitty And Virgil.

Thorpe writes beautifully of romantic deception, sexual intimacy and a parent's death. The publishers do it no service, however, by describing it as a critique of Blair's Britain; this is a novel almost exclusively concerned with private emotion and none the worse for it.

Daily Mail

D. J. Taylor: November 24, 2007

My novel of the year, inexplicably - well, no, all too explicably - absent from the Man Booker lists was Adam Thorpe's Between Each Breath, a tense, billowing account of an avant-garde composer whose life starts to disintegrate in the wake of a fling with an Estonian violinist, and, with its deftly written prose, offering welcome reminders of Thorpe's alternative career as a poet.

New Statesman

Rachel Cooke: November 22, 2007

Some good fiction this year. I loved Adam Thorpe's Between Each Breath (Jonathan Cape), a state-of-the-nation novel disguised as a state-of-Hampstead novel. Clever, beautifully written, moving: why hasn't it won any prizes?