- Doug Johnstone.
- 300 pages.
- Thriller / Crime / Fiction.
- My Rating: Hell Yeah Book Review.
A toxic family … a fight for survival…
Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum.
On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.
With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation … unless he drags her down too.
I received a free copy of this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Breakers is highly addictive and darkly compelling, at times, savage, sometimes brutally so, at other times, tender, it will leave a mark on you, it is a powerful story and one that resonates with the reader.
Tyler Wallace is seventeen-years-old and lives in Edinburgh in Niddrie, one of the most run-down and dilapidated areas of the city that is rife with abusers, gangs, wasteland, building sites, vandals and squalor. Tyler lives in a tower block along with his drink and drug-addled Mum, Angela and his younger sister, seven-year-old Bethany/Bean. On the same floor as them live his older half-brother, Barry and his older half-sister, Kelly.
To make money Tyler is an unwilling participant in robberies along with Barry and Kelly, he isn’t bad, he just does bad things to survive and the threat of the psychotic Barry makes him go along with their plans and robberies. Being from such a deprived area the trio has to look further afield and drive around the richer areas of Edinburgh, scouting out suitable houses that are ideal candidates to rob.
During a raid on one of the empty houses, something goes wrong and one of the home owner’s returns during the attempted robbery. After a confrontation with Barry, a knife is pulled, Barry stabs the women and leaves her lying in a growing pool of her own blood.
Barry threatens both Kelly and Tyler that nothing happened in the house and that is the story that they need to maintain thinking that it will all just wash away, another victim of a bungled robbery with no suspects. The women who Barry stabbed isn’t just a random homeowner though, she is the wife of Deke Holt, Edinburgh’s largest crime lord, an underworld kingpin and someone who you don’t ever fuck with.
Barry kicked the hornet’s nest by stabbing Holt’s wife, there are ramifications, reverberations that will affect them all, the police are after the siblings and Holt himself wants payback, revenge for his wife being stabbed and the noose is tightening for the Wallace family.
After the botched job, Tyler is out in the night, trying to calm his mind, time with his thoughts to reflect and contemplate. He breaks into another house, not to steal but simply for the peace, a quiet place to think and to be alone. This is where he inadvertently meets Flick, a ray of light against the impending darkness that has been unleashed with Holt.
Some people, like Barry, are just bad, they are damaged, evil, violent and volatile and there is a cruelness to them. They do bad things because they get a kick out of it, a thrill, an exhilaration and a high. it’s all they know how to do and who to be but still, there’s a darkness to them. Tyler isn’t like that. Tyler is a flawed but decent person, he does bad things not because he is bad but because of his family and his situation. He is a product of his situation, his location and circumstances that are beyond his control and he is just trying to make the best out of a bleak existence, to survive.
Even with Barry, Johnstone gives you a glimpse, only slight and through the words of Kelly as to the reason he is how he is, is who he is. It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, personality or anything about him, he is a vile individual but it helps explain it and shows how a toxic influence can bleed down through generations and how someone older can shape someone younger, model them like clay to become another version of themselves. Honestly, Barry is despicable but like with Angela and Kelly, I had a glimmer of sympathy for him, a sympathetic portrayal to them all for a life that none of them asked for. I couldn’t help but wonder if things had been different for him, for Kelly and for Angela would they have become who they are or would they be different? It is the same with Tyler and Bean, you will ponder how different could their lives have been under different circumstances and if they had been given a chance, a chance at a happy home life and a loving parental unit instead of the rusted blade of existence that they have been brought up in.
The Wallace family are small-time criminals, doing enough to eke out a living such as it is, getting by on the bare minimum and always having enough to keep them supplied in drink and drugs. Tyler, however, is different to his Mother, Barry and Kelly, he has seen what addiction can do, what you become when the demon gets hold of you and instead of embracing the lifestyle he abstains. He has an inner strength to him, different priorities, Bean, looking after, looking out for, caring for and protecting her as best he can.
Flick and Tyler are different people from different places and are polar opposites on the social scale. There is a class divide, Flick is one of the rich, one of the ‘haves’ while Tyler is one of the poor, one of the ‘have nots’ but there is a connection between them. Something that transcends social standing and something inside them that makes them similar, common ground, a symmetry to them and how they feel about themselves, their families, their lives and the world. They are from different sides of the track but are kindred spirits who have found something in each other that was missing.
I love books where the characters come to life. Books where you can imagine that you are reading about real people and real events. Fully-fleshed and three-dimensional characters, not just names on a page, cardboard cutouts who are involved in a story but characters that you feel for, that you care about and that seem real. I don’t just mean the ‘good‘ characters of the story either that many readers gravitate towards and root for but also the ‘bad‘ characters too. The ones that you dislike not because they are the villain of the tale and you are ‘supposed‘ to hate them but the ones that actually do make you hate them because of their actions, attitudes and because they are evil. That’s what Johnstone gives you in Breakers, stellar characterisation and characters that whether you like them or not they make you feel.
There are motes of colour in an otherwise grey existence for Tyler. You’ll be warmed by Bean who is such an endearing and strong child and some of the interaction between her and Tyler even as your heart breaks over their situation. Likewise, you’ll smile at Tyler and Flick, some of the comments shared between them and at Tyler’s awkwardness around her during the course of their budding friendship.
You know that come to the end of Breakers that in some way Holt will get his revenge for his wife, that is the story reaching its pinnacle, it’s inevitable, like night following day, you can’t escape it and the climax to Breakers is the ‘edge-of-the-seat‘ type of reading where you have to carry on reading to see where the cards finally fall. For me, however, at the forefront of Breakers is the Wallace family and I found Breakers to be a story about family, the drama and the lives of the Wallace’s. It is an uncompromising look at harsh family life, a family that has been consumed by alcohol and drug addiction, kin, the ties that bind, those that don’t and how they survive with an additional focus on the blossoming friendship between Tyler and Flick, two people from different worlds but inside, the same.
Johnstone doesn’t shy away from highlighting the harshness or pull his punches and Breakers can be graphic and grimy in its depiction of life in Niddrie with a tightly plotted and unflinching story being told. There is a tautness to the story and a weight, events that take place and words that are written are weighted with meaning and emotion. There is a gritty finesse to Johnstone’s writing. The dialogue between characters is snappy and he also does a great job of bringing Edinburgh to life, whether it’s the poverty-stricken areas or the more affluent areas of the city.
Breakers is only a short book but it punches well above its small page-count for both character and story depth giving the reader a deep and profoundly human story.
Pre-order Breakers released May 16th, 2019.
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