Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Katriona Chapman’s first book, Follow Me In, explored the sights and feelings of a five-month trip to Mexico in beautifully detailed pencil and watercolour drawings. Although it was mostly a conventional travelogue that documented a journey, there were elements of another kind of less visible, interior story floated into some places that slid the book into a different genre and made it harder to categorise. Breakwater is constructed in the opposite way to that previous book, this time using some real elements to anchor an entirely fictional story.
The Breakwater Picture House is an old, Odeon-style massive cinema that sits on the seafront overlooking the promenade of an unnamed English South coast seaside town. Chris, a middle-aged woman with few friends, is content to work as an usher, an unchallenging job that leaves her free to think about other things, although it’s not a freedom that she takes advantage of in any concrete way. She’s comfortable with this routine until a new person becomes part of the team. Dan, chatty and assertive, shakes up her torpor. The two become friends and then emotionally connected when Chris lets Dan into her life, and he prompts her to reassess her priorities.
One of Chapman’s greatest assets as a storyteller is the ability to create beautifully rendered drawings of place. Her pencils move over the features of buildings and interiors in wonderfully textured, atmospheric images which capture the essence of locations in a quietly reflective way. She puts these skills to good use in the interiors of this 1930s art deco structure, the vast abandoned spaces dimly lit, dust motes floating in the air as shafts of light illuminate the ruined interiors. She brings the same level of observation to all the locations her characters inhabit, giving her story a solid, believable grounding for their experiences. The shadows and empty places take on a different tone as Chris discovers what powers Dan’s behaviour and the giddy, charmed feeling of a fascinating new friendship gives way to a much darker and complicated situation.
Breakwater turns out to have several meanings. When you reach the end of this book you realise Chapman’s themes are quite clearly expressed in the cover illustration. The majestic Picture House offers a temporary refuge from daily life, while swelling tides beat against the walls designed to lessen the power of the sea. Those waves which can go from hypnotic and compelling to overwhelming and deadly are like the interior landscapes of the characters in this story. Can they ride those deep waters when they surge in a storm, or will they be lost beneath them?