Reviews of Anna Snoekstra's previous novels (there have been four) often mention the various jobs Snoekstra has had, from cheesemonger to receptionist to Christmas Elf.
She shares this unusual career progression with Jo Ainsley, protagonist of her latest psychological thriller, Out of Breath. When we meet Jo, she's working in a café and as a trivia host in Sydney. Before that she was an art school dropout in London, and before that... her memories of a small town English childhood are murky and suppressed.
When Jo's relationship in Sydney goes awry, she leaves for a remote farm in Western Australia, where she'll pick mangoes for 88 days to extend her visa. Working conditions are less than ideal, and the handsome Gabe soon tempts Jo to flee again.
Thanks to Jo's habit of running away, Out of Breath covers a lot of ground: a lost pregnancy, insomnia, exploitation of migrant workers, a crocodile attack, a lonely child, an industrial accident, sunburn, utopian communal living, implanted memories, drug abuse, free-diving, pearl farming, and a true crime podcast. (That last one was my favourite twist.)
Throughout it all we catch glimpses of Jo's life before she came to Australia, before she fled to London, when she was living with her mum and a brother - until something terrible happened.
The gradual reveal of this terrible childhood event contributes to building tension in the novel. The other tension is that the "idyllic off-grid community" where Jo finally stops running, might not be so idyllic after all. There are moments of real unsettling thrill - no spoilers, but when a floorboard breaks, when Jo's root trauma is first "uncovered", when Gabe takes an ill-advised dive.
All novels have to find a balance between moments of action that move the plot forward, and moments of reaction that let the reader feel the impact of the action. Out of Breath has plenty of action.
The edge-of-seat, thriller effect of that action might have been greater if Snoekstra - and Jo - had lingered longer on the characters' reactions.
For example, when Jo first tells Gabe what happened when she was a child - the first time the reader hears it stated directly - it takes up half a page, and is then not referred to again for several chapters.
In the meantime, a lot of other things happen. The action is well-described and well-paced, and kept me turning the pages even in the absence of any deep psychological impacts.
So if you're after an easy-to-read drama, featuring a remote setting and brief but fascinating insights into the varied lives of people at the margins, working varied jobs - read Out of Breath.
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