An author who has been gaining my interest for quite some time, Clarke is growing in popularity. Her technique of inserting a mystery (usually a character’s disappearance) into an exotic locale, far from the shores of her beloved UK, always makes her works compelling, adding depth and excitement to what might otherwise be a pedestrian narrative. With most of the action set on the island state of Tasmania (my home state), A Single Breath is a story that literally takes your breath away.
In the wild, beautiful, untamed landscape of Wattleboon Island (actually Bruny Island, just south of Hobart), Clarke explores the notion of secrets and betrayal, how a set of precarious circumstances will eventuality bring Eva, Clarke’s embattled heroine, to the brink of tragedy—and sanity. A bright, educated midwife who clearly loves her career, and her life, Eva (like many faithful wives) may have actually underestimated her husband, Jackson, who as the novel opens, has been swept out to sea while fishing off the coast of Dorset.
Married for only ten months, Eva is totally inconsolable. She works hard to try and push away the dark thoughts that pierce at her and make her mind whirl with grief. Though the coastguard calls off the search, Eva remains convinced that her husband is still out there. As her grim days unfold in a thick fog of misery that seems “to burn through her insides and leave her raw,” reason dictates that she will turn to Callie, her best friend, a girl who fills the room with her smile and who will come to play an essential role in the unfolding drama.
Needing to speak to Jackson’s father Dirk and his brother Saul and to finally see the family shack at Wattleboon Island (with her head still filled with clear memories of Jackson’s last moments), Eva decides to travel to Tasmania. She’s positive that she can connect to Dirk and Saul over their shared love and loss. Here in Tasmania, with its rugged landscapes and shadowy colonial past, Eva slips into a parallel world where only she and Jackson existed. Upon arrival in Hobart, she meets up with whiskey-swilling Dirk, who chafes at her presence and refuses to accompany her to Wattleboon or to Saul. Dirk’s truculent attitude and his stunted, booze-soaked world increase the hard knot of anger that wedges deep in the pit of Eva’s stomach.
Given enough time to consider her choices, Eva replays Dirk’s words in her mind: “You two should never have gotten married.” Fed up with getting the cold shoulder and with the secrets and lies that shroud so much of Jackson’s past, Eva becomes ever more determined to find Saul. Watching Wattleboon Island finally come into focus, an adventure dangles before Eva like forbidden fruit. Arriving on the island and finally meeting Saul (who like his father doesn’t want to know her), a prickle of uncertainly travels over Eva’s skin, most manifested in Saul’s betrayal of Jackson and Jackson’s voice that reverberates inside her head: “You can’t trust him. He’s a liar.“ Saul, however is Eva’s only fragile link to Jackson, “as if it runs between them like a single fine thread.”
While the plot is predictable and many of the twists, turns, and revelations are telegraphed, in Clarke’s hands, this story is miraculous, fortified by the bourgeoning passions of Eva and an undemonstrative Saul, the blind dishonesty of Jackson, the sabotage of Eva’s marriage, and the instant attraction that first ignited their love affair back in London. Wattleboon Island holds its metaphorical breath over Eva: there’s not a ripple of wind on the water, and the sky that is always blue and cloudless. Ironically it is Callie, flying in from Melbourne, who offers a life buoy of sorts to Eva by giving Saul a chance to step up to the mark of finally being a brother-in-law. It is also Callie who notices that Saul’s hesitance to talk about Jackson harbors much deeper roots than they can see.
Although the striking Tasmanian landscapes really make this novel a standout read, Clarke’s ability to easily convey theme and character truly transforms this tale into an ordeal of tightly wound emotion. Clarke writes in the name of memory, of self-protection and the self-harm the past perhaps affords us. In a story of the past and present, of unresolved issues and of Eva’s night terrors, everything swirls and spins around Eva, a circle of confusion that twists and knots together in one continuous tangle of thought. As the gorgeous bay of Wattleboon tilts behind Eva and the shore’s dark tree line wavers towards her, her relationship with Saul descends into something new, shadowed by the ghost of Jackson, who always seems to be present.
From the secrets of Jeanette who “lives up North” to Eva’s fracturing, sharp memories of Jackson and the origins of a disastrous fire on Wattleboon that sabotaged Dirk’s return, questions about Jackson’s past spin around and around in Eva’s mind like a Ferris wheel. Outdoing herself once again, Clarke reveals how our intricate untruths are woven together, writing of a woman floating adrift in a new world of great beauty and of a brother who comes to her and finally seems to understand her inner, most complicated needs.