A Shadow’s Breath

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Nicole Hayes, A Shadow’s Breath,  Random House Australia, 30 Jan 2017,  316pp.,  $19.99 (pbk),  ISBN 9780143781097

Teenaged Tessa has a lot to contend with. Living in a run-down fibro house inherited from her grandmother in a small country town, with her alcoholic mother Ellen, and Ellen’s abusive boyfriend, Tessa’s memories of a happier time before the death of her father are a sharp contrast to her current reality.

One constant friend, Yuki, is a positive element in Tessa’s story. Yuki and her family provide the sort of back-up support that can make a difference in a troubled person’s life. Tessa and Yuki have a plan to “escape” to Melbourne after their final exams, to build a new life. But this is a time of growth and change, and Yuki makes new friends and dreams of a different future in film-making and drama. Tessa also finds herself thinking of fine art as an alternative career. As often happens, the end of school will see a change in their friendship. When Tess hooks up with Nick, who is a year older and the epitome of academic success, planning her future becomes even more complicated.

This is a narrative layered in distinct time zones. Back story is revealed as we alternate between “then” and “now”. The traditional Australian theme of “lost in the bush” is brought in as a pivotal event in the plot. Tessa, who had been doing alright with her mother’s improvement and Nick’s love and support, suddenly has to survive the greatest challenge of her life.

A mystery from Tessa’s childhood is slowly revealed through recalled visual memories. Painting the horrendous image helps Tessa process her past and begin emotional recovery.

One response to extreme grief is a type of withdrawal and emotional deadening. This seems to be Tessa’s way of handing her experiences, and it is replicated in the tone of this book. Although so much suffering is related, the language is understated and detached. The chosen mode of present tense, third person narrative provides a dispassionate story that may have been heightened with more immediate emotional impact if we had been allowed a first person view into the mind of this resilient main character.

Reviewed by Julie Thorndyke