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Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf

 Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf

Its curious to review Heather Gudenkaufs One Breath Away in the wake of Christopher Priests The Glamour. Though vastly different in content and tone, both feature multiple voices recounting their perspectives of a particular event, and both highlight how narrative and history can be rewritten and recreated based upon a viewpoint characters particular perspective. Priests book opens with a character wondering how he arrived at such a point in his life, a challenge that is levelled equally at Gudenkaufs characters.

The narrative of One Breath Away revolves around a single, central point: the arrival of a gunman at the local school. Gudenkauf provides us with myriad perspectives to attempt to make sense of the situation, and what emerges is a fascinating exploration of the personal guilt we all harbour and the damaged lives that many people live. Its also an examination of involvement by degree, with the point of view characters varying in their level of implication in this immediate conflict.

Theres Holly, who lies in hospital, recovering from severe burns, when she learns that her daughter, Augie, is trapped in the school. Hollys impotence and regret are achingly palpable, and her role is utterly removed from the conflict. So too is Will Thwaite, Hollys estranged father, who is determined to see his grandchildren to safety without causing Holly any further trauma.

Augie, though within the school, is removed by a degree from the gunman, who has set up in her younger brothers classroom. Like Holly and Will, Augie is wracked by guilt over her perceptions of having failed her family, and attempts to act to save her brother. Outside the school gates, police officer Meg, on the other hand, is torn over how to respond to the situation. Her daughter, who would ordinarily be in the classroom, is fortuitously away from school that day, but Meg is plagued by thoughts that she might respond differently to the situation were her daughter there. School teacher Mrs Oliver, on the other hand, spends the novel in the immediate vicinity with the gunman. Unlike the others, hers is a life that is largely free of regrets, and its this that allows her to act as she does.

Gudenkauf explores the stand-off between the police and the gunman from both within the school and from outside, with the characters on either side of the wall unable to know what is happening beyond their present sphere of existence. Instead, each characters viewpoint chapters are full of possibles and imaginings, each of which overlays a particular narrative to what is happening, rather like in the Priest book. Guilt plays an enormous role here, with so many of the characters seeking to atone for past actions or inaction by becoming involved in the situation. The gunmans identity, too, shifts as the various characters dig into their pasts and come up with a particular individual who may well be the man behind the mask. Brothers, fathers, past students are all possible solutions are various times as the characters project their damaged existences on to the present situation.

However, this ongoing misdirection and the slowness of the various participants in responding to the situation results in the middle section of the book feeling somewhat slow and devoid of tension. This is partly because the books focus is not on the gunman and his actions, but rather about the events that led to a character taking such a terrifying stand, and about the subsequent revealing of his identity. After the first few chapters we get the feeling that those in the classroom arent in any real danger, and what were watching unfold is a sort of waiting game. Although I appreciated the focus on the characters and on how their various pasts could all ostensibly lead them to a single present, there were times when the book felt a little as though it was treading water, particularly given the often rapid point of view shifts.

Still, Gudenkaufs characterisation is, as it was in her earlier novel These Things Hidden (my review), excellent, with each character real and distinct. Setting, too, is beautifully utilised here: the heavy snow that has recently fallen acts as a stifling, limiting force, and underscores the slow pace at which the police can respond to the situation. The small town atmosphere feels real, too, and constantly highlights how little we know about those whose lives we come into contact with every day.

One Breath Away feels occasionally as though its between genres, and I think thats where my ambivalence over the tension and plot comes in. From the blurb and the first few chapters, we seem to be heading into suspense or thriller territory, but beyond this the novel shifts towards thoughtful commercial fiction focused more on an internal journey than an external one. Still, slow middle aside, this ones a worthy read, and I look forward to seeing more from Gudenkauf in the future.

 Rating: star Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkaufstar Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkaufstar Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkaufhalfstar Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkaufblankstar Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf (very good)

With thanks to Meryl L Media Relations for the review copy

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Other books by Heather Gudenkauf:

these things hidden gudenkauf Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf

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  1. Ive been wanting to read this one since I saw some early information on it, sounds like a really interesting read. Great review!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Stef! I loved her previous book as wellshes definitely an author worth checking out.

  2. Im adding this one to my list! Even reading your review made me tense.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Jenclair! I do hope you enjoy it. :) Her second book is wonderful as well, and Ive heard great things about her debut.