2012 REVIEWS: AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS #6

Shallow Breath
Author: Sara Foster
Random House RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

Shallow BreathAfter reading psychological thrillers Beneath the Shadows and Come Back to Me I had high hopes for Sara Foster’s third novel, Shallow Breath. She did not disappoint – delivering another taut, suspenseful read bursting with family secrets and hope.

Just released from prison after making a horrible mistake that impacted on family and friends, Desi Priest has returned to her childhood home to make amends with the people she’s hurt, beginning with her daughter, Maya. Her return is not exactly welcomed by Maya, who still harbours anger and confusion about Desi’s actions. And her long-time friend, Pete, knows that now is the time to share news with Desi he’s held back for a long time, all the while believing it was for the best.

Meanwhile, Kate, a beautiful stranger, comes to town, entrancing Desi’s brother, Jackson, but with a hidden agenda. It has something to do with Desi, but what? As Jackson tries to piece together this mystery, Desi tries to settle back into her old life and Pete tries to smooth the way, Maya is busy with her own secretive mission, one not without danger. When Kate approaches Desi for help, Desi is at first reluctant (unlike Maya), but soon sees the request as a means for redemption. Will she finally be free of the past? Are second chances possible?

Shallow Breath is told from multiple perspectives, allowing the characters and plot to develop with depth and balance. In a story about secrets and conflict, it’s really a useful technique because it gives the reader a far bigger picture of the events leading to, and following, Desi’s imprisonment. As the reader finds, each character is withholding something. They all have reasons for not sharing; stubbornness and/or a need for independence are strong motivators for some characters, but really, they are all protecting someone, even if it is their own self. Somehow the secrets are all connected, all hinge to Desi in some way; Foster does a great job connecting them all in a believable manner.

The title and the cover do the book justice – I particularly like the image of the hand touching the water and the reflection below. It sums up the book so well – beneath the surface of the town, the ocean and the characters lurk secrets, fears, horrors, anxieties, resentments, love and more, but most only see what first appears. The title Shallow Breath speaks of the shallow breaths people take when anxious or not relaxed, which really, most of the characters are in this novel; it also links to the deeper breaths needed in order to dive deep (whether into the ocean, as in the case of some of the characters, or into yourself).

As a Perth resident, I found it interesting to read about the long-closed Atlantis Theme Park – I’ve only lived here 12 years, so I’d never heard of it, but Blue Eyes had. It added to the authenticity of the story and context to events that took place later in the novel; Desi had worked at this park so her decision to help Kate is in keeping with who the reader sees she is. But what stole my breath in this novel was the fascinating/shocking storyline involving the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, Japan; I am sad to say I knew little of this and this insight was revealing, repelling and saddening. It’s food for thought.

Shallow Breath is one of those books you want to dive into and not come back out of until it’s finished. It’s well-crafted with thoughtful, authentic characterisation and a compelling storyline. Foster has a bright future ahead of her as a suspense writer – she has the gift for telling a tale and telling it well. If you haven’t already checked out her books, I’d recommend them all. Each one is different, yet perfectly flavoured with psychological suspense.

Available from good bookstores and Random House. This copy was courtesy of Random House.


The Reunion
Author: Joanne Fedler
Arena RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The ReunionAt the weekend I left behind my husband and children to reunite with family who live more than 3000km away, as well as my best friend from my university days. It was a time for getting up to date, reminiscing, affirming bonds, and plenty of food and wine. So, it was fitting that the book I chose to read on the plane was The Reunion by Joanne Fedler; both entertaining and perceptive, this novel complemented my own reunion well.

Jo, Helen, Ereka and CJ  became friends when their lives revolved around their small children. Now their children are pre-teens and teenagers with attitudes, iPods and raging hormones. When they invite some other mothers for a weekend in an old country house, they anticipate plenty of talking, wine and food. As they discuss men, marriage and parenting, they are in turn confronted by contrasting feelings of emptiness and liberation. Friendships and long-held bonds are tested as their vulnerabilities come to the fore and the weekend takes some unexpected turns.

Women juggle so many things, from career and family life to the competing needs of marriage and motherhood. On top of this, we yearn to be good people and we need good friends to confide in. Do you ever feel like the balance is tipped in favour of some things more than others? Like there is little room for exercise, meditation, friends and hobbies on top of driving lessons, parent-teacher interviews, work, grocery shopping, budgets and date nights? Fedler has tapped into that collective balancing act with The Reunion as her characters explore their individual challenges, fading dreams and changing bodies. As she reminds us, we’re all in this life together, things and people change, and our bodies age, even if our experiences are radically different. And in between the school drop-offs and pick-ups, there can be plenty of drama.

The story is told from the point of view of the neurotic Jo, a 44-year-old mother of two with high expectations of herself and others. Over the course of the weekend, Jo is forced to re-think her expectations and “let go”, to move from becoming a mother, to becoming herself. As she learns, “Everything is shifting as my children take themselves from me, bit by bit, giving me back to myself.” So well put… Fedler puts into words exactly how it feels when children move towards adulthood.  Jo’s journey to greater self-awareness, to realising that she is just an “ordinary good-enough mother doing her best” is as insightful as it is affirming and reassuring. It’s heartening to have this truth before you – you’re not the only one who has or will go through this. Our narratives are just different.

I really enjoyed this well-crafted book – on the one hand it was light and entertaining, while on the other it tapped into my own journey of becoming a mother to letting go. Give this one to a mother you love – whether it’s your own, your mother-in-law, or a good friend.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin.  This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.


 
PURPLE ROADS

Author: Fleur McDonald
Arena RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Purple Roads It is often said that the average person is only three pay cheques away from becoming homeless. Sobering thought,  isn’t it? Purple Roads explores the concept of losing everything, if not becoming completely homeless, from a number of varying perspectives.
Childhood sweethearts Anna and Matt Butler achieved their dream of owning their own land through hard work and determination. But as the seasons conspire against them and Matt is involved in a terrible accident, the couple face financial ruin and the loss of their farm. As they fight for everything they hold dear, they suddenly find themselves caught up in events much bigger and more dangerous than they could ever have imagined.Purple Roads is my first foray into rural fiction and it has left me wanting more. First of all, it’s real. I do read to escape, but sometimes yummy mummies in high heels, impossibly chic city girls and globe-trotting career women are just too far from my reality. It’s heartening to read something that you can honestly relate to – how many of us have faced the loss of all we hold dear? Marriage? Children? Home? Dreams?

Author Fleur McDonald has woven a heartfelt story of loss, love and hope through the circumstances of Matt and Anna; the reader is called to look at their situation from both sides, showing that sometimes you can love someone but not always in the way they need. Initially, it’s easy to be on Anna’s side – she is the stalwart wife standing by her man, struggling to understand where her loving man has gone. But over time, the reader, like Anna, gradually comes to understand that Matt’s perception of how Anna is handling things is different; he feels that she has just gotten on with things and forgotten what they once dreamed of. Doesn’t that mirror the relationships between men and women beautifully, with all their different versions of truth?

Other characters and sub-plots in Purple Roads also explore the issue of loss, though to a lesser degree. Jimmy, the trucking yard owner, has endured a crippling loss, which affects his young nephew profoundly. How this plays out shows the impact of the choices people make in dealing with the cards they have been dealt.

At the outset it seems like popular fiction, but it gives the reader (well, those who think things to death like me) plenty to think about as well. I really enjoyed it; McDonald’s engaging writing style drew me right in and I had a hard time putting the book down.  Read it and share it.

Available from good bookstores or Allen & Unwin.  This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.