Cover of book: Out of Breath

Anna Snoekstra
Out of Breath

Where does Jo belong? Not back in England. Not in art school. Not even in Sydney, as the life she has just started to build is slipping away. So, with no clear path ahead, wanting adventure, wanting a clean slate – and needing to fulfil her visa requirements – the 27-year-old heads to Broome to spend a few months picking mangoes on a remote farm. She shrugs off her friend’s warnings about horror film scenarios and, upon arrival, is only a little bit unsettled by the display of missing persons posters at the bus stop.

It’s at this point that Out of Breath could turn into a by-the-numbers Australian outback thriller. Yes, it’s a tense page-turner: but seasoned author Anna Snoekstra is clearly aware of the clichés that surround stories about remote Australia. Throughout this sweeping novel, she nods to the tropes and then subverts them.

The book is broken into four parts, though in terms of structure or plot the divisions don’t serve much purpose. Perhaps it is purely due to the book’s length – Out of Breath is long, stretching to 400 pages. The early chapters depicting Jo’s time in Sydney are crammed with events and details, reflecting her hectic life there. This provides a strong contrast to the rest of the book, which is slower and more languid. But it’s never dull as she first takes on her monotonous and sun-drenched work at the farm and then joins a seemingly utopian off-grid community. The novel is interspersed with flashbacks and occasional glimpses into other characters’ perspectives. Questions about Jo’s past grow louder, while the slow-burn nature of the writing means the dread builds gradually. Snoekstra plants red flags for both Jo and the reader, but they are subtle and easily explained away, which makes the plot compellingly difficult to predict.

Jo’s desire to find somewhere she belongs is the driving force of the novel and is what makes each of her decisions – as ill-advised as some of them may be – believable. Snoekstra changes her protagonist’s name as she tries to make herself fit in wherever she is, from Jo, Josie, Josephine to J.

While there is a smattering of social commentary, getting a message across isn’t the novel’s focus – first and foremost Out of Breath is an absorbing and entertaining read. There’s a sinister edge to almost every scene, and the feeling of a constantly simmering mystery makes it a difficult book to put down. 

HQ, 400pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Out of Breath, Anna Snoekstra".

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Elizabeth Flux is a writer, editor and critic.

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