Shallow Breath is the hotly anticipated new novel by Western Australian suspense writer Sara Foster. It is a gripping tale of love and loss in the context of environmentalism. It is said to be Foster’s ‘love letter to the ocean’ highlighting animal cruelty in Australia and around the world and the extreme measures conservationists are prepared to go to help prevent those atrocities. Foster forces the reader to question the perceived superiority of the human race; to decide who, in our world, are the real ‘animals’. Water, as depicted on the cover, makes a powerful symbol, and it is used to great effect throughout the novel to emphasise the human experiences of emotional depth, peacefulness, suffocation and fear.
Shallow Breath is not for the faint hearted, especially if you are an animal lover, but the conservation subplot is original and informative without being overly didactic. Foster drew inspiration from the infamous documentary about Japanese dolphin hunting, The Cove, and went on to travel widely and thoroughly research the animal welfare issues at stake in this book. The graphic and troubling incidents range from plight of the Sumatran Orang-utans to African elephants, right through to kangaroos on our own doorstep. It is uncomfortable reading, but these are stories that must be told. There are author’s notes, acknowledgements and suggested reading group questions at the end of this book to stimulate discussion on these matters. I note that a percentage of royalties is going to animal charities, too.
But Shallow Breath is by no means a dry lecture on animal rights. The opening pages offer one of the most gripping introductions I’ve read in some time. The protagonist is deep sea diving and her tank is caught on a thick piece of netting. She has five minutes of air left. If she cuts herself free from the equipment, will she be able to push herself to the surface and breathe? Or will one of the ocean’s other inhabitants intercept her on the way? From this tantalising starter, the novel continues apace with smart, evocative writing. I caught myself reading and re-reading phrases admiring how cleverly they revealed details of the characters’ lives without spoon feeding the reader. This is the first of Foster’s novels I’ve read, but I’ll be seeking out more of them simply to watch the evolution of her writing style.
The initial intensity of Shallow Breath soon gives way to a more tidal pattern; it ebbs and flows between different narrative voices, the past and the present. Fresh out of prison, Desi Priest returns to her home in coastal WA to begin reconnecting with her family and friends. Each of the key players in her life – daughter Maya, brother Jackson, father Charlie and best friend Rebecca – has a different way of responding to her crime and to her potential reintegration into their lives. Her long term friend, Pete, is trying to protect her from some harsh truths; while Jackson is falling for the charismatic Kate – the niece of Connor, Maya’s deceased father. Each has their share of secrets as well as their particular passions. Needless to say, the steady unveiling of all that lies below the surface is suspenseful, complicated and deeply mired in oceanic metaphors. Foster shows us how closely related we are to the animal world by placing her characters in the same predicaments as hunted animals – suddenly separated from their parents, for example, or fearfully trapped underwater. The feeling of suffocation was palpable through the novel, whether it be from immersion or from the unspoken words seemingly stuck in people’s throats.
Foster is a gifted writer who has much to teach us in amongst this intriguing family saga.
Shallow Breath is published by Random House and I thank them kindly for my review copy.
You can read a sample chapter of the novel at the Random House website.
This review will also be linked to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.