Review: One Breath Away; Heather Gudenkauf

An engrossingly ‘real’ read- 4.5 stars

Source- bought copy

Mira Publishing- June 2012

Kindle- 375 pages

This is Heather Gudenkauf’s third novel and one that I’ve really been looking forward to experiencing- despite a subject matter that seems to sadly be more and more  prevalent in today’s society: that of school shootings. Both Jodi Picoult and Diane Chamberlain have covered similar themes of school shootings and/or violence in schools in their books (‘Nineteen Minutes’ and ‘Reflection’ respectively) and Gudenkauf is a novelist along similar lines; in that she can take a gritty, disturbingly real theme and transform it into a genuinely compelling piece of fiction.

In the small town of Broken Branch, Iowa, the peace and tranquillity of a rural farming community is shattered by the disturbing news that a lone gunman has entered the local school. As parents and police scrabble to the scene to try and find out the fate of the endangered students, the questions on everyone’s mind are: who is he? And most importantly: what does he want…?

Wow. This was a page-turner of a book that ratcheted up the tension and just kept it consistently going throughout the story. It was fast-paced and as it was written in multiple viewpoints, the reader experiences events in Broken Branch along with five of the key-players of the tale. From the perspectives of youngster Augie, her mother Hollie (helpless in a hospital bed hundreds of miles away from Iowa) and grandfather Will, as well as soon-to-be-retired school teacher Mrs Olive and local cop Meg, we come understand the happenings leading up to the crucial event taking place, and through their eyes watch the circumstances unfold- all of them caught up in the drama in unique ways.

I was initially concerned that seeing the event from so many different perspectives would become confusing or add too many complex layers to the narrative, but the writing is so skilful that instead it allows the reader to slip effortlessly into each of these characters heads and see events from their eyes. Each perspective’s ‘voice’ also remains distinct and as a reader you genuinely come to care about the characters. I loved Augie and PJ and the strong brother/sister bond between them and empathised with Hollie and Will’s estranged father/daughter relationship. For me though, one of the strongest characters in this book was definitely Mrs Olive- how I adored her and her compassion for her students.

I found this book to be completely believable. References to Columbine and the tragic events there really struck a chord with me and you could almost feel the heightened panic and sense of uncertainty seeping through the pages as unsubstantiated rumours and confusion began swirling as to what was happening within Broken Branch- as well as a sense of helplessness and fear. The parallels were credibly drawn- as well as the gunman’s identity. Who was he? What were his motives for carrying out such an act? Those compelling questions certainly kept me guessing.

I’ve deducted half a star merely because once the truth was unveiled; the book did seem to be tied up just a bit too quickly for my liking. I didn’t see the ending coming but would have perhaps liked to have seen a bit more of the whys and where’s elaborated upon once it was all revealed. Nevertheless, this (and Gudenkauf’s other novels) are a guaranteed must read for fans of Diane Chamberlain or Jodi Picoult, with a heady mix of dramas, riveting secrets and complex family dynamics. Add this (and her other books) to your to be read pile- today.

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