Out of Breath by Anna Snoekstra is the second book I’ve read by the Australian author. Interestingly in my review of Only Daughter (from 2016) I commented on the Canberra setting, with which I was familiar, having lived there for a couple of years.
And here, part of the novel is set in Broome in WA and nearby… and I’ve just come back from a few weeks in the West Kimberley, so laughed at the comments about the Broome ‘International’ Airport and could easily picture the stunning vista of palm trees, red dirt and pristine blue ocean.
Out of Breath
by Anna Snoekstra
Published by HQ Fiction AU
Genres: Thriller / Suspense
Jo Ainsley has been running for a long time. From her childhood in small town England to art school in London to the messy end of a relationship in Sydney, Jo has chosen to run again and again, each time moving further from where her troubles began.
This time, her escape will bring her to the remote northwest region of Western Australia, where she must work for 88 days on a farm in order to extend her visa. There she meets an American, Gabe, with whom she has an immediate connection. He tells her of an idyllic off-grid community which seems like a refuge to her. Miserable, desperate and traumatised by a brutal event at the farm, Jo decides to run.
But the paradisal free-diving haven that embraces her without judgement is not all it seems. It harbours some sinister secrets - and so does Gabe. Jo searches for answers, but is she prepared for what she uncovers? She must decide where her loyalties lie and if she is really ready to confront the darkness of her past...
Snoekstra does a good job of eking out Jo’s backstory, initially offering up an explanation of Jo’s hasty decision to travel to Australia after quitting her art studies, before we eventually learn more about her childhood.
When we meet her she’s working in a cafe and hosting trivia nights in Sydney, but has committed to travel to a remote farm in West Australia to earn points for a visa. The blurb mentions her habit of ‘running’ and she certainly does that here. She’s ill prepared for life on a farm picking mangoes (although I wonder if many backpackers are).
There’s a sense of menace on the farm and Jo’s suspicious of its owner Denny who (at times) seems well-intentioned and decent though devoid of social skills, but at others… kinda spooky. I appreciated the friendships she builds there and was interested in the lifestyle Snoekstra describes. You hear horror stories about backpackers on farms… akin to slave labour and getting paid abysmally… so we expect the worst here.
While there Jo meets the charismatic Gabe, and Ally who live in a nearby community. Even Jo realises it’s a commune of some kind but in many ways she’s the perfect recruit…. unhappy with life and looking for something ‘more’.
Again Snoekstra is able to offer readers a balanced view of the group. No one appears to be held there against their will but many there are listed in the outside world as ‘missing’. Here Jo finds a calmness and contentment she’s been missing and is introduced to a form of free-diving and ‘the doorway of the deep’ in which the underwater pressure starts to pull you down rather than push you up.
What I really liked about this is Snoekstra manages to have us trust those we shouldn’t and suspicious of those we should. I appreciated that but I think the challenge for me here though is I didn’t really feel as if I was given a solid antagonist. On one hand it’s a good thing – that everyone we meet comes in shades of grey – not all good or all bad, but at the same time it meant I felt a little anticlimactic (the climax I was waiting for just didn’t come, or perhaps the conclusion was a little rushed).
That aside, Snoekstra offers an interesting and engaging study in human nature and I think this would be a great bookclub read as there’s much moral fodder for discussion.
Out of Breath by Anna Snoekstra was published in Australia by HQ Fiction and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.