Book review: Breakers, by Doug Johnstone

Much of Doug Johnstone’s work falls into two camps: action-packed (Smokeheads, Crash Land) or psychologically powerful (Gone Again, The Jump). Last year’s Fault Lines saw him weld these strands together and in Breakers he goes further, giving us pacey action punctuating a painfully beautiful study of 17-year-old Tyler, who is trying to hold himself and his family together despite having been dealt one of life’s crappier hands of cards.
Doug Johnstone. Pic Neil HannaDoug Johnstone. Pic Neil Hanna
Doug Johnstone. Pic Neil Hanna

We are in Edinburgh, although not the city’s tartan tourist hotspots but its long-ignored deprived areas. And Johnstone doesn’t take us to a run-down tower block to gawp briefly before motoring back to safety; he embeds us in the life of Tyler and his family so we understand their actions.

This is underscored from the start, as Tyler looks after his little sister, Bethany – known to the family as Bean – ahead of a visit from older half-brother Barry, whose name alone makes the pair nervous. Johnstone starkly catalogues their lives: a drink- and drug-addicted mother; Bean’s sole soft toy, stolen by Tyler from a house where the child had dozens; “two ragged sofas” as the living room furniture. But there’s sweet affection between the siblings, Tyler spinning tales of superhero Bean Girl to entertain his sister before bedtime.

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The delight ends sharply when Barry arrives, and we’re pitched into

a housebreaking job, with Tyler’s half-sister Kelly making up the gang as they cruise an affluent area minutes away from their towerblock lives. But as the three grab jewellery from an elegant home, the owner returns.

As she is momentarily distracted, Barry, kitchen knife in hand, rushes her. They take their loot and walk past her bleeding body into the night. At school the next day, Tyler discovers that the woman, who is in hospital, is Monica Holt, wife of Deke Holt, head of the local crime family. Tyler gets home to be met by a Police Scotland detective – and now there are sonorous cracking noises as the thin ice he skates on every day of his life starts to shift beneath his feet.

As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, into his life walks Flick – all red private school blazer, red VW Beetle and moneyed vitality. She is a slightly obvious counterpoint, but there is brittle vulnerability to her, and she genuinely wants to help Tyler, even though she has no concept of what that really means.

Breakers doesn’t just touch delicately on current social issues via the dogged detective dealing with a case, it puts the entire raw reality in front of the reader. Johnstone has previously given us people making bad choices and facing the consequences; here, Tyler must deal with the fallout from decisions his circumstances in life make for him – he joins his half-siblings in housebreaking trips, as that’s the only choice he can make when the alternative is Barry beating him. Even the life-changing decision he makes towards the end of the book feels like the only possible option.

It’s not all unrelenting pain. There’s a spark of joy when Tyler and Bean rescue a dog and her puppies, and a lump in the throat as we see Tyler with Bean – he wants her to have more and know less than he did at her age. There is a thread of hope that Tyler’s good nature can cancel out the lack of positive nurturing in his life, and at the end there is a hint of a better world ahead for him. Breakers is the most powerful and moving book from Johnstone yet – a calling card that no-one can ignore. - Louise Fairbairn

Breakers, by Doug Johnstone, Orenda Books, 230pp, £8.99