OUT OF BREATH
Anna Snoekstra (HQ Fiction, $32.99)
In Out of Breath, the latest novel by acclaimed Melbourne-based author Anna Snoekstra, protagonist Jo Ainsley is a young English woman living in Sydney who is eager to see “the Australia with farmers and kangaroos, not skyscrapers and a…holes in suits”. In the aftermath of a painful breakup with a local PhD student, she well and truly gets her wish when she’s sent to a mango farm near Broome, tasked with working on the harvest to fulfil the rules of her visa (in common with many backpackers existing outside of fiction, she’s required to work 88 days in the regions).
It’s here she encounters Gabe, a charismatic American and a member of a mysterious off-grid community at an abandoned pearling town called Rossack (which brings to mind the real-life “living ghost town” of Cossack, on the Pilbara coast). Exploitative conditions at the farm and her deteriorating mental state, exacerbated by chronic insomnia, eventually drive Jo to join him at the seemingly idyllic settlement.
One of the things that sets Out of Breath apart is Snoekstra’s skill with characterisation, and Jo in particular is both complex and compelling. Haunted by “versions of herself she doesn’t like to remember” courtesy of her hinted-at childhood trauma and unsuccessful attempts to reinvent herself in London and then Sydney, she’s searching both for a sense of belonging and some relief from the unhappy memories that stalk her nights. All this makes her especially susceptible to Rossack’s cult-like group dynamics as the initially slow-burning plot gathers pace and the isolated community gradually and convincingly transforms from hippie-ish paradise to something more sinister.
Another of the novel’s strengths is the depth of research, about subjects including the dark history of the pearling industry in WA’s North West, that clearly informs the narrative. The result is an intelligent, character-driven psychological thriller rooted in a vivid evocation of the Kimberley landscape.
TOGETHER WE CAN
Claire O’Rourke (Allen & Unwin, $32.99)
In the aftermath of the 2019-20 bushfires, Claire O’Rourke embarked on a “climate hope project”. Having experienced the mix of grief, fear, fury and hopelessness she terms “climate freak-out”, the journalist-turned-campaigner resolved “to cultivate a little more hopefulness in my worldview”, not as a way to avoid the scale or challenges of the issue but to motivate her own efforts and help bring others together to drive action. At once pragmatic and optimistic, her new book introduces people from around Australia who are working towards caring for the planet at both a local and much wider level, from community groups to scientists, farmers, entrepreneurs and more.
THE MUTUAL FRIEND
Carter Bays (Hodder & Stoughton, $32.99)
Set during the summer of 2015 in New York City, the debut novel by Carter Bays — co-creator of TV show How I Met Your Mother — is a social satire that’s been described as “The Bonfire of the Vanities for the era of reality TV and social media”. It centres on Alice, a musical prodigy-turned wannabe doctor struggling to muster the focus even to fill out the form for her medical school entrance exam. Digital distraction is a running theme as we meet the ensemble cast of characters surrounding Alice, including her chaotic new roommate Roxy and brother Bill, who has made a fortune with shopping app MeWantThat.
Akuch Kuol Anyieth (Text, $34.99)
Melbourne-based author and researcher Akuch Kuol Anyieth describes herself as “South Sudanese by birth, Kenyan by migration and life experience, and Australian by migration and citizenship”. Her powerful and unflinchingly honest memoir reflects on her remarkable life, beginning as her family flees civil war to seek shelter in a remote Kenyan refugee camp. “My childhood memories of the camp,” she writes, “include hunger and thirst, dust storms, bites from scorpions, outbreaks of malaria and cholera — and violence.” The latter follows Anyieth to Australia. After arriving in 2005, her new home initially seems like “paradise for sure”, but she must grapple with racism, and with trauma and violence within her own family.