Review & Author Interview: A Shadow's Breath by Nicole Hayes + GIVEAWAY

Saturday, 1 July 2017

A Shadow's Breath by Nicole Hayes
Released: 30th January 2017
Published by: Penguin Random House Australia
Genre: YA Contemporary
Pages: 316
My Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Then, things were looking up for Tessa. Her mum was finally getting her life back on track. Tessa had started seeing Nick. She was making new friends. She'd even begun to paint again.

Now, Tessa and Nick are trapped in the car after a corner taken too fast. Injured, stranded in the wilderness, at the mercy of the elements, the question becomes one of survival. But Tessa isn't sure she wants to be found.

Not after what she saw. Not after what she remembered.
A Shadow's Breath actually took my breath away. In this poignant and emotional gem of a read, Nicole Hayes has struck the perfect balance between the gripping suspense of a survival situation and a sensitivity in perceiving her protagonist's life in the past and present. Effortlessly woven between 'then' in the events leading to the car accident and 'now' in the harsh wilderness of the Australian bush, this is the type of book that delves deeper than expected into the broad impact of an unstable life at home, the social strains within a friendship group and the volatility of a first love. This is a book you will remember.

She closes her eyes, lets the lull and pull of the water buoy her before she slips under again. She opens her eyes and peers into the black. Light filters through the ripples, dust flecks suspended like a thousand tiny stars. 

The beauty and brutality of the Australian wilderness is captured in equal measure within A Shadow's Breath. Following the accident, for Tess and Nick survival is the name of the game, and yet there is an underlying allure to the ruggedness of the landscape in the writing style. You are instantly transported into the disorienting mess of greenery, and feel the same sense of urgency as the characters attempting to find their way out of a situation where the cards are stacked well and truly against them. However, there are moments where you are reading a paragraph which so eloquently describes the vastness of a cerulean blue sky, and with it the possibility of escape. Tess and Nick were both fleshed out as very realistic characters in a demanding, high-pressure situation. It is here where their fears were brought to the surface, tensions reached an all-time high and the story held some of its deepest moments which left me reeling.

But that feeling has never left her - the rush of letting go - and it's the same feeling that she has now. But she knows that if she truly lets go this time, lets her body stop moving and her limbs go limp, they won't rise again. She'll be stuck there, in the middle of nowhere, so far from the things that matter that she might as well have lived an entire life alone.

Tessa's life before is brought into focus in the 'then' sections, where the repercussions of a traumatic event in her past and the impact of her mother's drinking are explored. It is not often that a YA novel will enter this territory, so it was interesting to see an author take it on in this context. The mother-daughter relationship at its most unpredictable, delicate and tender is written with a clarity here that is well executed and moving. Not only that, but the friendships Tessa has, especially with Yuki her best friend and how that is challenged when Tessa feels herself becoming socially isolated, was something which I think some readers could definitely relate to. Throughout the plot she is questioning the type of person she wants to be, perhaps whether she could pursue her passion for art as a career, and how Nick's dreams could fit into her life as well. The need to make big life decisions and a glimpse at moving forward into a more positive space are once again challenges which readers may find reflected in their own experiences.


What is special about A Shadow's Breath is the tender exploration of a perilous situation. There is more than one shocking twist to be found within these pages for sure, but the real triumph here is where Hayes has demonstrated our capacity to mend relationships with those who are closest to us.

Author Interview with Nicole Hayes

How did you find your writing process and style differed in A Shadows Breath in comparison to The Whole of My World and One True Thing?

So different! Structurally, A Shadow’s Breath is far more complicated from the writer’s point of view. It’s fairly straightforward for the reader – alternating past and present narratives that feed into and from each other until they converge near the end. So it’s easy to follow for the reader. At least, I hope it is! But to write this structure – to ensure both narratives are engaging and compelling -- that each storyline earns its own space -- is actually tricky to pull off. While The Whole of My World flew out of me every time I rewrote it – and that was many, many times over the years ­– and One True Thing – eventually – followed a straightforward chronology, A Shadow’s Breath was more difficult from start to finish. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it was incredibly satisfying when I got there. I had no idea if the book would be popular or well received, but I knew, from a writing perspective, I’d managed to do something I’d worried I couldn’t. And that felt fantastic!

Since then I’ve garnered more objectivity about the story, and can see how it works together. Yet, oddly, I feel a deeper connection with these characters now than I did while I was actually writing it. Now, when I read back, I can see Tessa and her mum, Nick and Yuki, Lara and Zane, and Yuki’s family. They feel so real and close to me. It’s crazy! It’s not usually how it works – the writing is when the connection is deepest, ordinarily. But I think because the material is so challenging and difficult that I had to protect myself, in some ways, so they didn’t hurt me too much!

What is your favourite aspect of the Australian landscape?

The colours. The light. The vastness. The disparity. Wait. You wanted one thing? Okay, so how it all works together to create this sense of endlessness. Timelessness. Space. It’s such a simple thing, really. Survival in the bush is all about food and water and shade and shelter, and yet beneath the simplicity of that, there are so many contradictions and complexities. There’s the psychology of being so far from everything, the fear of what might be lurking ahead, and all of those dangers, small and large, waiting around every corner, under every rock. All of it hidden behind such extraordinary beauty. Even the desert, which can feel and seem lifeless, dead even, is actually teeming with life.

But most of all, it’s the isolation. When you’re alone in the Australian bush, it feels like you’re the only person left on Earth. And there’s something almost spiritual about that.

Without giving too much away, is there a particular moment in A Shadow’s Breath which really made an impact on you while writing it?

There were many, and it’s really hard to write about this novel without spoilers, but seeing Tessa and her mum take those first tentative steps towards trusting each other again stand out to me. Watching Ellen try to make amends, the careful, subtle investment of her love and herself into the house, for example – buying cushions from the op shop, taking the time to clean windows, mow the lawn, cook meals from scratch – all the stuff that had been neglected for so long. I think it’s particularly poignant in the scene when Tessa takes all of this in: her mum’s asleep on the couch, the colour and warmth of the living room embrace her, and then that sleepy ease between them when Ellen wakes up… It makes me cry every single time. Every. Single. Time.

Through Tessa’s experience and home life we were given glimpses into how the issues of alcoholism and domestic violence have flow-on effects which often reach wider than we may think. How important was it for you to include these elements in the storyline?

The ripple effect and the repercussions of adult choices and parental problems on their teen children drives much of my writing. It’s such a tough spot to be in when you’re a teen. You’re at the coalface of life, with all the access, all the blowback, all the fallout, but very little control over the course your family takes. Particularly in dysfunctional families where issues like alcohol and drug abuse – any kind of abuse – are so damaging and dangerous. It’s worse for the innocent bystanders – the kids, the spouse, the extended family members -- than for the perpetrators themselves. This is multiplied tenfold when you’re an only child, or you are somewhat isolated from other family support. And the damage continues long after the family falls apart or the perpetrator is removed. Saddest of all, it can transcend distance and time, even generations.

For Tessa, the only model she has of a functional family are her best friend Yuki’s family, and some vague memories of her own life before her father fell ill – memories that we can’t entirely trust, given how far back they go. Her compass is all messed up. She doesn’t know how or who she can trust. For a time, she trusts no one.

But there is a way out – that was the most important thing for me to express through A Shadow’s Breath. The way out is not obvious and it’s not easy, and sometimes it requires enormous courage from those least equipped to find it. But it’s there. There’s hope. Always, always, there’s hope.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received as an author which you could pass on?

Rather than write what you know, as we’re so often told, write what you love. Or care passionately about. You can always research something that isn’t familiar, or is new or foreign to you, but it has to be something that matters deeply or else you’ll run out of steam, either in the process of writing the story or in the revision or publicity stages. Plus, readers see through you when you’re faking it on the page. Every time. On a practical level, when you write a book, you live with the subject matter for many, many years, even after publication. You want to really care about the subject if you’re going to have to keep talking about it for years after. That, or be an excellent actor!

Are you working on anything new at the moment you could tell us about?

I’m some way into a new YA novel, but I’m still not sure entirely what it’s about! Or I suspect I know, but I’m too superstitious to say it out loud before I’ve completed the first draft. But it’s exciting and I can’t wait to get back into it. So… Watch this space!
When Nicole Hayes isn't yelling at the Hawks on TV or sharing hosting duties on the all-female AFL podcast, The Outer Sanctum, she teaches writing and writes fiction, essays and scripts. Her debut novel, The Whole of My World, was published in 2013 and was shortlisted for a Young Australians Best Book Award and longlisted for the Gold Inky Award.

One True Thing, Nicole's second novel, won the Children's Peace Literature Award, is a CBCA Notable Book and was shortlisted for the WA Premier's Book Awards. She has also co-edited an anthology of footy stories, From the Outer: Footy Like You've Never Heard It, with Alicia Sometimes. Nicole lives in Melbourne with her husband, two daughters and a dog called Brody.

Say hi at or tweet @nichmelbourne.
For more about Nicole's writing process for A Shadow's Breath, you can check out her guest post over at the Aussie YA Bloggers and Readers site. 



Entries are closing soon so get in quick for a chance to win a $20 voucher for an Australian bookstore AND two Nicole Hayes novels!
Giveaway alert! 'A Shadow's Breath' is an amazing #LoveOzYA novel by Nicole Hayes and now Aussie readers can have the opportunity to win more of her books *PLUS* a bookish gift voucher through our photo comp... . . 📒Main Rule: Include in your photo the cover of A Shadow's Breath - it can be through your own copy, one from the library or a digital image. Feel free to get creative with a theme that takes inspiration from the title - the most creative photo wins! . . 📒The Prize: Any 2 novels by Nicole Hayes (choose from A Shadow's Breath ● One True Thing ● The Whole of My World) AND: - A $20 voucher for an Australian bookstore . . 📒Open to entries here or on twitter, just make sure to use the #ashadowsbreathcontest hashtag in your posts so Nicole can see them! . . 📒Open to Australian residents only, competition closes on 10th July . . [ Stay tuned for some blog posts happening soon and more opportunities to win a copy of 'A Shadow's Breath' over at @divabooknerd @ausyabloggers and my blog! ]
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