Male characters

Tony, David, Michael and Paul with Joy from The Trick is to Keep Breathing


Michael Fisher is Joy’s colleague at school, with whom she was having an affair. He drowns in a swimming pool in Spain before the novel begins.

His death is retold throughout the novel in short italicised passages. These are almost poetic snap-shots that Joy re-pieces together in her memory. They represent her gradual movement towards acceptance, an important stage in her grieving process.

Michael was married and it is clear that he attempted to keep his affair with Joy secret:

Michael would call late in the night after his wife had gone to bed.

However Nancy Fisher finds out about the relationship. Michael moves in with Joy the same night, which suggests Nancy has thrown him out.

Joy paints a fairly idyllic picture of life with Michael:

Some nights we'd stay awake right through on the pleasure of holding the other warm body in the dark

But their life together is not without difficulties. It is clear that money is a problem and that they cannot really afford the holiday to Spain. Dry rot forces Joy out of her cottage and into Michael's council house. It is for the reader to decide if the rot represents difficulties developing for the future of Joy and Michael's relationship.


Paul is Joy’s childhood sweetheart whom she lived with for the better part of seven years. They cannot cope with the reality of growing up and living an adult life. Joy views him as a Superman figure to whom she is vastly inferior in every respect.

Joy feeds Paul and looks after the house. She tries to mend their relationship through soul searching while he retreats into emotional detatchment. Joy comments that:

He punished me for his unhappiness by refusing to touch me

Joy looks for love elsewhere and has an affair with David, an ex-pupil. It is clear Joy's relationship with Paul is over when at her mother's funeral:

he shook my hand in line with everybody else waiting outside the crematorium. I looked at his face and couldn't tell who he was for a minute. It didn't feel better when I remembered. It felt worse

Joy finally leaves Paul's flat when he claims to be sleeping around and pointedly buys a Chinese take away for dinner rather than eating the food she prepares. He make the break between them clear:

I don't need you for anything, he said, loud and flat. I don't need you for a thing.

What Joy needs most is to be wanted and needed. It is only when Paul makes it clear that she is neither of those, that she finally leaves.

Joy continues to rely on Paul for emotional support. It is Paul she turns to for help during Myra's visit. However, Paul is fed up and exasperated with Joy and treats her unsympathetically.

We see a supportive side to Paul when he helps her move back into her cottage. Joy comments that he is:

Tall and thin and too good to be true.

They have a stilted conversation where Joy tries to touch him, both physically and emotionally. There is a hint that all is not well with Paul's life and that his upcoming marriage might hide a level of unhappiness. What is clear is that Paul does not intend to see Joy again, even though he does not come out and say it.


While still together with Paul, Joy has had an affair with David. He is an ex-pupil from Joy’s school who is now a college student.

David returns after Michael's death and spontaneously calls and visits Joy from this point on. David and Joy's relationship follows a regular pattern:

We get drunk and have sex and I scream a lot of the time.

David controls the relationship. It is David who decides when they meet. It seems clear to the reader that he is using her for his own sexual pleasure. However David does provide some support for Joy. He takes the screaming and holds me and visits her in Forest House. Joy has no idea why David visits her:

I have no insight into his motives. I have no idea of what he thinks he is doing with me. Maybe now it has to stop.

As with other aspects of her life, Joy gains some sort of comfort from her relationship with David although she realises that ultimately it is unhealthy.