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Posted on 21 May 2024 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

BRADLEY TREVOR GREIVE and CAROLINE LANER BREURE Broken Girl. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart

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This memoir of a young woman’s recovery from a traumatic brain injury becomes an unputdownable detective story.

Broken Girl, Caroline Laner Breure’s memoir written with Bradley Trevor Greive, opens with light, breezy snapshots of a young woman ready to burst forth into the world. She is cocky, impulsive. A high achiever, she has finished university in Porto Alegro, Brazil, ‘proud to be a maths nerd’, and joyfully sets out for Sydney with travel, further study, new jobs, and fun on the cards. The short sentences flit between the glib and the melodramatic, a privileged stream of consciousness of conspicuous wealth, beaches, nightclubs, destination weddings. These pages reek of artificiality, but don’t be too quick to judge.

It is indeed artificial, but for very different reasons to those you might think. On holiday in Barcelona, Breure suffered horrendous injuries when run over by a speeding police car. She was dashed against the windscreen then thrown 13 metres into a gutter, head first, breaking her body and slicing her brain virtually in two. In those opening chapters, Bruere is recounting a period of her life that she only half remembers, inhabited by people both known and loved yet also strange and terrible. It is a dream-like state in which she knows certain events took place – she has the evidence – but she can barely recall them.  

I know that place because I’ve been there too. Exactly 37 years ago, at the end of April 1987, I was lying in a coma in hospital. My traumatic brain injury, the weeks of life support and months of rehabilitation took me into a world where there were no answers to questions that I couldn’t ask. Chunks of sense were missing but you don’t know what you don’t know. It was a living nightmare.

Bruere’s nightmare began at the worst possible time and was to last much longer. First there were months of intensive care in a foreign country, her family and doctors desperately lobbying the Spanish government to extend her tourist visa – to move her would mean almost certain death. But this was just the beginning. The dark days when Covid-19 would close borders, overrun hospitals, and kill millions were looming. Her life, and those of her mother and her partner, would be governed by the brutal emergency conditions imposed across three continents. This is a powerful story of that period, a searing reminder of the human tragedy behind blunt government responses.

First and foremost, though, it is an insight into recovery after traumatic brain injury. It takes us into the upside-down world where betrayal is a constant companion. Just as Bruere recounts, I recall the betrayal of my own body, which no longer did what it effortlessly used to do. Language garbled, balance gone, comprehension mangled. Seeing people’s pity. I recall the callousness of doctors and psychologists, my social ineptness called out, my failures recorded over and over again. And like Breure, I had my mother’s fierce belief in me, a mother who also flew across the world to sit by my hospital bed. Breure describes how:

Sometimes I would scream and lash out violently.

When I tried to feed myself, I would end up with more food on my face and clothes than in my mouth.

People would stare.

Mum didn’t care.

In her eyes, I could do no wrong.

I was alive. That was all that mattered.

Most incredible is the not knowing. If I hadn’t also experienced these things, I might not have believed such a loss of memory was possible. Breure knew she was in Brazil, where her mother was finally able to take her, but she had no idea why. I ‘woke up’ in another country too, first amused by this dream that I must be in, then horrified when it would not end. Breure muses that someone must have told her … Perhaps it just didn’t stick? But maybe nobody did. I don’t think they told me. In those months of unconsciousness and amnesia, then being partially aware, then more fully recovered, when is the right time to say, ‘Hey, you’re here because this thing happened’?

The trauma goes on. Even when Breure was well enough to travel and live independently, to return to the life she had built in Sydney, the passage of time, the ravages of Covid and her still high support needs isolated her even more. She describes vividly the cruelty of withdrawn friendship, the people who moved on without her – even those who loved her – who could not bear how she had changed. Her anger with them, and with the loss of her business and the life she had built, is palpable, but she realises a different truth.

Trauma wounds and stains in different ways.

Like grief, it doesn’t always make sense how, where and when it hits home.

Byron didn’t spend an agonising year relearning how to eat, speak, walk.

He wasn’t tied to a bed, wailing in agony.

It wasn’t his skull split into two by a motorised meat cleaver.

But I know Byron witnessed much of this.

He faced the horror with his eyes open.

I’d slept through the worst of it.

Breure’s damaged brain not only shut out the trauma but also critical episodes before the accident, her memories sifting and preserving an idea of herself that she had been clinging to. When she is finally able to unlock her laptop, meticulously working through different password combinations, she literally rediscovers her own life – her relationships, her most intimate partners, her work, medical history, study, travel. The book becomes a detective story as she reappraises the person she was then, against the one today. It is impossible to put down.

Breure and Greive have written a powerful account of the sadness, anger and discovery that accompanies a brain rewiring itself. Her story may be called ‘courageous’, but I think that it describes her path back to herself, the path that she knew she had to take, the only path.

A rogue police car had tried to kill me.

And failed.

Nothing could stop me now.

Bradley Trevor Greive and Caroline Laner Breure Broken Girl Hachette 2024 HB 368pp $34.99

Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. She can be found at where she writes about editing, vagaries of the English language and books she’s loved.

You can buy Broken Girl from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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1 Comment

  1. An excellent review made more powerful by the stark honesty of Jessica in paralleling her own experience with the book’s protaganist Caroline. This book and review should be read by all bike riders who balk at wearing a helmet.