by Anna Snoekstra
Publisher/Year: HQ Fiction/2022
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 paradisiac 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…
Reviewer: Moraig Kisler
I’m a fan of Anna Snoekstra, but Out of Breath takes her writing to another level. This psychological suspense novel is at times terrifying. After a slow-burning start, a sense of dread and danger intensifies to a terrifying climax. But it’s the characters who had me enthralled. Snoekstra paints interesting and authentic characters whose histories are gradually revealed. Each character has particular quirks which lends authenticity to the story and kept me turning pages to learn more. I feared for Nika, a child abandoned by her mother (or was she?).
Jo Ainsley escapes England after a traumatic incident, and Snoekstra keeps us hanging before finally revealing what happened. Jo also escapes Sydney after a failed relationship to a mango farm in Broome where she must work to extend her visa. It is here she meets the mysterious Gabe to whom Jo is immediately attracted.
After an accident on the farm, Jo again escapes the mango farm to Gabe and the supposed safety of an idyllic community of free-divers. Jo learns to free-dive (scenes filled with magnificent description and dread), and attends one-on-one counselling sessions with the inscrutable Ally, the leader of the community. But does Jo welcome the healing sessions?
Jo gradually learns this haven of free-diving, free-spirits is far from what it seems, rather marred by terrible secrets. Out of Breath is an apt name, because at times I was breathless, worried for Jo’s safety. When Jo questions some unethical practices, she gradually pieces together the truth about the community and, she must again run – this time for her life.
Out of Breath is filled with twists and turns that build to a frightening climax. Snoekstra covers some interesting themes: the effects of trauma on the subconscious and the brain’s refusal to acknowledge or engage, cult manipulation, and the desperate need to belong. Her depiction of the Australian landscape, set around Broome, alone makes Out of Breath worth the read. Snoekstra transported me to this sinister off-grid community.
I certainly recommend Out of Breath – Snoekstra at her best.
Reviewer 2: BOOK SNAPS <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Out of Breath by Anna Snoesktra is set in the north-west of Western Australia, where vast stretches of land are uninhabited. The isolated setting, creepy characters (one of them is a 10-year-old boy), crocodile-infested swamps, and buried secrets are all elements of a great mystery thriller. Oh, and yes, there’s a young English backpacker who travels alone to the region, working on a mango farm to meet Visa requirements. We know something bad is going to happen.
Jo Ainsley is a young woman who carries traumatic memories from her past – some of these memories she has managed to bury deep into her mind. As she settles into the routine of farm work, she is able to make a few friends, and even though the conditions are very basic, she begins to live a healthier lifestyle. However, after a tragic event on the farm, she walks out, and manages to reach an idyllic haven near the ocean, where a group of people are living secretly in an old abandoned settlement. It is here that Jo starts to feel comfortable, and the group introduce her to free-diving, otherwise known as breath-hold diving. When Jo discovers disturbing secrets, she realises she needs to do something, and this leads to a startling conclusion.
The author is an accomplished writer, using all the techniques to build tension. As Jo is walking through the bush, away from the farm, and pretty-well lost, the author writes: “She keeps going. Pushing through the scrub towards the shimmering water. A car door slams.”
And as she watches free-diving for the first time:
“He holds his nose and she sees his mouth open, a huge breath, then he’s under. She sees the bobble of his bum, his feet splashing the surface. Then nothing. Silence. Jo finds she is holding her own breath. After a few seconds, she lets it out. Ho-jin doesn’t come up. She scans the water, looking at the heads, the people sitting on the sand bed. No one is moving. She notices the sky has darkened, just in the few minutes she has been sitting here. It’s turned grey-blue, but the water is sparkling. Ho-jin hasn’t come up. It must have been at least a minute. Is it possible to hold your breath that long? Underwater as well. No one appears concerned. She hears a small laugh. Two women have their heads bent together on the rocks, their shoulders touching. The breeze lessens, then dies away entirely, like it too is holding its breath. Jo looks around. Could she get there in time if she ran down and around the incline, could she jump in and try and find him in all that blue water?”
Some surprising and unexpected twists make this an engaging story that keeps the reader turning the pages. I was continually trying to guess which characters were trustworthy, and which ones were just plain evil. And what were the group of people really doing in such an isolated place with very little contact with the outside world?
After she leaves the farm, Jo says she “doesn’t ever want to touch a mango again for the rest of her life”. Personally, I’m not sure I’ll eat another mango without thinking of that horrifying event on the farm.