This month we publish Breathing on Glass the wonderfully original debut novel from Little, Brown author, Jennifer Cryer.
A provocative tale of love, loyalty, ambition and science, Breathing on Glass tells the story of scientist Rhea and her golden, voluptuous sister Amber. Rhea and Amber are not alike, but they are bound tighter than most: by love, by the loss of their father, and by the man who stands between them. Lewis is Amber's husband and the ferociously driven director of the biotech lab where Rhea is a rising star.
In alchemical pursuit of the perfect stem cell, Rhea and Lewis inhabit a rarefied world. Putting their trust in science, they are blinkered against the fatal human element. Amber, however, desperate for a child and embarking on fertility treatment, must confront precisely this flawed physicality.
As the three are increasingly drawn into a transgressive relationship, a Faustian pact is forged. The result is a series of betrayals that none will be able to forgive
The novel is already receiving glowing reviews, including this high praise from Tessa Hadley, author of Orange long-listed The London Train ‘Breathing on Glass is a pleasure to read: absorbing, authoritative, exciting . . . Exceptional . . . It's a rare achievement . . . breathtakingly good, fascinating and funny . . . The relationship between the two sisters, its tenderness and its deep history and its treacheries, is marvellously realised . . . The whole management of suspense and tension in the novel is masterly’
Intelligent, adroit and totally original Breathing on Glass is perfect for fans of Rose Tremain, Zadie Smith, and Tessa Hadley.
Scroll down to read an extract from this standout debut online now.
Rhea began to keep a photographic record of the minuscule daily changes.
‘Some day these will be the most famous cells in the world,’ Lewis said.
‘Celebrity culture,’ someone called, from across the lab, and a gust of warm laughter took the edge off the air-con. Peering down a photo-microscope didn’t have quite the paparazzi glitz the team longed for, but that evening the atmosphere puckered with the expectation that they would soon have a stem-cell line made from adult tissue. If they did, Lewis’s words would come true. All around her Rhea heard the tense intake of breath as the research team geared up for the final push.
The students and post-docs around her were exuberant, animated with intellectual curiosity and idealism, but it had already been a long day and Lewis’s eyes were losing their unfettered confidence. His shirt, which had been smooth and ironed that morning, was creased and showing its age. Crumpled linen, however expensive, and crumpled skin didn’t make for a good look, but Rhea let it pass. His clothes were Amber’s territory and she wasn’t going to blunder into her sister’s space. His research team, on the other hand, were definitely her business.
‘I’ll stay and finish the cell prep myself,’ she offered. ‘You lot get off to the pub and enjoy yourselves.’
When they left her alone with Lewis, they took their undeniable optimism away with them. ‘They get their hopes up so easily,’ she said, as she watched the retreating backs. ‘I don’t suppose today’s results will be any better.’ Lewis looked away quickly, but not before she had seen the flicker of resentment in him. However hard he tried, he could never hide his pique at the very things he relied on her for – her common sense, her caution. All those things that kept his research group firmly on track, he minded. They stood in silence as the youthful buzz dwindled to a few over-excited shrieks, and then, after the banging of the outer door, to nothing. Lewis looked at the culture flask as though he could charm a stem cell into reproducing perfectly, so that every daughter cell was an exact copy of its single parent. ‘We can do it, Rhea.’
Recklessness and prudence swung disconcertingly between them. The wider the oscillations, the more dangerous they felt. At this stage in their work there could be no middle course. Success and failure were evenly matched enemies, but both threatening. To escape them, Rhea turned and went into the tissue-culture suite.
Tireless fans forced air into a cataract: an invisible wall that separated Rhea from the sample, half a gram of human tissue sucked from the thigh of a young researcher who was having a cartilage repair. The flow resisted her as she pushed her hands inside the tissue-culture hood but she pressed forward and breached it, her skin covered with latex gloves and the cuffs of her laboratory coat tight around her wrists.
Inside the hood, she touched the adipose tissue with her scalpel. Gently, gently, she stroked it. She knew better than to risk pressing down. Any pressure and the scalpel would give way; not the steel – that was strong – but the plastic handle would snap and the thin blade fly off, lacerating whatever it touched. As she transferred the dissected tissue into the bottle, a drop fell from the lump of fat onto the stainless-steel tray of the isolation cabinet. She wiped it away instantly before it had time to spread any infection, but even in those seconds, there was a smell of grease through the air curtain, soon obliterated by the disorienting edge of the alcohol she used for cleaning. She couldn’t help breathing it in and felt its contribution to the air of unreality. The enclosed space created an illusion of the culture hood as a toy theatre with its brightly lit stage and its safety curtain. Cellular dramas, miniatures of survival, were played out there as she worked.
The half-gram of fat was invaluable to Rhea. With a visionary’s clarity, she saw through it to the assortment of cells caught inside: the bountiful-bellied mature adipose cells with their loading of energy-rich fat, the tough, scrawny fibroblasts that made the connective tissue and, most desirable and least distinguished of all, the uncommitted stem cells. They were the important ones, still capable of developing into blood cells, or bones, whatever was needed. Grow your own spare parts? Surgeons everywhere held their breath, waiting for the science to do for the worn-out body what nature did for every new baby. Sensitive to being vilified for the use of embryonic tissue, medicine longed for technology to redeem it: to find the adult cells that could develop into any part of the body. And there wasn’t a single researcher who didn’t want to be acclaimed as the blameless saviour of human health. Every one of Rhea’s colleagues was engaged in a frantic contest for that Holy Grail. Her friends might spend the evening in the pub, but in the morning they’d be in the lab early, vying to outstrip the competition.
All over the cell walls were surface markers, small molecular clusters that distinguished them from the other cells, moved information in and out of them. Identify those markers and you would have a means of separating out the stem cells, even the few that would be left in adult tissue. Rhea had developed a method of preparation that used minimal concentrations of the enzymes that broke down connective tissue and released the cells – the cell surface markers suffered little damage from the process. Filtering them through the net-curtain fabric she’d bought in a department-store sale, she separated them, at blood temperature to keep them alive. When most workers couldn't force their will on their cultures, Rhea could persuade hers. They flourished under her care: complete genetic blueprints of the donor in every flask.
She worked steadily, quietly, cut off in the ever-decreasing series of containment rooms that were like nested boxes, giving all her attention to what she was doing. Rhea didn’t hear or see anything: the fans were noisy; the brightest light came from the lamps in the hood; no sound or shadow alerted her. But an overwhelming sense of presence made her look up towards the observation window in the door. Lewis was pressed up against the glass, his forehead flattened. Even he wouldn’t come in and risk contaminating her work. His mouth made a moue. Through the wire-laced glass, it looked like a kiss, but Rhea knew it wasn't.
‘Amber,’ he was mouthing. Rhea smiled briefly and complicitly, with a flush of pleasure. They understood one another, she and Lewis, because they were the same: uncomplicated, with none of the unsettling attraction of opposites that existed between him and Amber. Or her and Dave: purposeful, impatient Dave. At least he understood about work. Lewis wasn’t so lucky: his wife wouldn’t be kept waiting for anything. He had married Amber within a year of meeting her and ever since then the irresistible allure of her sister and the interminable demands of his work had held him in joint thrall. Rhea had booked a slot for a previous set of radioactive samples to be analysed in the isotope suite that evening. The results could be crucial, but if Amber wanted him at home, he had to leave. The stress of not knowing the outcome would keep him on edge all evening.
‘I’ll phone.’ The smallest nod was enough to create total understanding between them. It was easy enough to keep up the constant exchange of research results: they were never further apart than a call or a text.
By the time she had finished the cell preparation she was tired. Her friends were in the glitter and camaraderie of the pub, but up here there was only her. She couldn’t leave until she had set up her overnight counting. She felt stranded. But she wasn’t far from home. The barest glance from the window showed the bar where she usually met her friends, and beyond it her flat, in darkness because Dave was away. She had only to touch the phone to feel close to him. The long sine waves of the communications industry looped between them. After his talk, he would be eating dinner now in a bar like the one she was looking at, a guest at another university. She didn’t call him. He could enjoy this small professional freedom without her interrupting.
Rhea had developed a strain of bacteria that produced an antibody to the stem-cell surface marker. There was an elegance in the idea that nature could make its own reagents that gratified her, but she wasn’t above manipulating chemical elements. She had labelled the antibody with radioactivity; months of work were crushed into a few microlitres. She would find out now if her antibody had found its target stem cells in her cultures. Let them have reproduced true. Let them be pure stem cells, she thought, as she loaded the samples into their racks.
The isotope suite was right at the top of the building, up a windowless set of stairs. Out were the pastel, colour-coded tiles of the lower floors, with their busy, noisy corridors, and in were austere concrete treads for the registered user. In all that emptiness, the only thing that Rhea could hear was the echo of her own footsteps; she might be the only person left in the building. She’d have liked Lewis to be there if the results were good: someone who’d be pleased for her. It was one thing to enjoy the isolation in the tissue-culture suite, with a dozen friends on the other side of the door; it was quite another to spend your evenings somewhere that was constructed like a solitary-confinement facility.
The door to the isotope suite was painted a heavy-duty blue that jarred ambitiously with the waspish yellow and black of the Danger Radioactive warning symbol. The click of the lock release as she swiped her key card wasn’t enough to open a heavy, leadlined door like this; Rhea knew just how to lean her shoulder against it so that she could sidle in through the space that her weight opened up. As soon as she was inside, the door swung shut. Its dull thud was the last sound that could be heard from the stairwell. From the inside of that door everything – radio - activity, waste, the air you breathed, probably even the noise you made – was whisked away and cleansed before it could impinge on the uncontaminated world outside.
The scintillation counters were all busily moving sample vials in and out of their chambers. At each ejection they whispered intimately into their computer links, delivering numbers to data files and persuading Rhea that someone else must be in the room. It’s the ghost in the machine, she joked, whenever the feeling threatened to overwhelm her. The incessant activity of the equipment used up the hemmed-in air and made it hot. It rolled down her throat heavily, inducing distaste, like nausea: the nausea of being tired and invigorated at the same time. But the feeling wasn’t all unpleasant. It reminded her of something else dislocating: the end of a party, when the effects of the drink were beginning to wear off but you weren’t finished with having a good time.
Yawning, she checked the racks queued up on the conveyorbelt. Her own vials were at the end of a long line already set up for overnight processing so there was no chance that she would have her results before morning. The samples at the front of the queue belonged to Stephen Glatton. He’ll be at home, labouring over his Sudoku by now, she thought, marking the numbers in soft pencil so that he can rub out the mistakes. That way, when it’s finished, it’ll look perfect. By the time he brings it into work tomorrow, he’ll have convinced himself that he solved it without any of the usual wrong turnings and dead ends. She lifted his samples off and substituted her own. A few keystrokes changed the machine settings from his to hers. By the morning I’ll have my counts and I’ll have put his samples back. He’ll never know.
The first of her samples nudged its way forward and dropped into the counting chamber. Usually, she would have gone back to the lab now, left the machinery to go about its business, but she was nervous with anticipation. The orderly progression of her racks along the conveyor-belt would be reduced to a string of numbers that revealed success or failure. Her eyes snatched the first result from the screen and tried to read something into it, just to get an inkling of what the rest would be like. But it was impossible: the single number meant nothing in itself. She knew that she had to wait for the full set. Only then would she see them as a whole and feel the pull of the trend, like an undertow beneath the surface of the sea; the dangerous one you feel near to an estuary, where the competing forces of ocean and river have to come to an accommodation.
Let them all be stem cells, she wished again, but the words disappeared blankly into the space between the reinforced walls. She closed her eyes and let the rhythmic flurry of the machinery anchor her.
When the results eventually appeared they weren’t at all the ones she had hoped for. She took the read-out downstairs and sat at her desk, easing through the figures as though her stare could massage them into something more compliant. The hint she had dropped to Lewis, that there might be something to tell him, twanged back at her, short of its mark. None of her samples was wholly stem cells. Every one of her vials showed promise, enrichment, but there weren’t any pure preparations.
A cataclysmic failure might have been easier to face. You could always make a drama out of a disaster but all she could see here were tedious months of repeating the same process, a dreary edging nearer to the goal.
Never as good as she hoped, yet never as bad as she feared, her figures stayed solidly insufficient, refusing to budge over 55 per cent; 45 per cent of her cells had lost their unique stem-cell markers and become ordinary and useless to her. A pointless irritation at their stubbornness pricked at her. She wouldn't sleep tonight. It was dark outside, but only with the provisional, city sort of dark that never really thickens into blackness. At least there was something consoling in that: the way that urban energy never surrendered to nature, something that told you not to give up. If she phoned Lewis at home now he was going to be disappointed and he would have to hide it. He’d pass her over to Amber. She wasn’t up for a sisterly chat with an Amber cosy by the fire in her new house in the country, the darkness so black around her that her lighted windows could be seen for miles around. Bad news and texts made a good enough match.
The adrenalin of exhaustion was making a racket in Rhea’s head, drowning her stoicism. She decided to change into her trainers and jog home, a half-lit mile along the canal, and let the running sweat it all out of her. Running always unleashed her: even thinking about the steady rhythm of her legs, the glint of the recycled glass, like sparks under her feet, along the towpath was exhilarating. It made her feel elated and powerful; in fact, the hours she spent running were the only ones when Rhea felt she unconditionally inhabited her own body.
Breathing on Glass is available to buy from all good bookshops and online retail outlets now.
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