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Mrs Oliver has spent her life in the classroom. Educating. Guiding. Nurturing. But on the last day of term all she really wants is to get to the afternoon bell without any drama. A gunman walking in to her classroom really does not fit in with her plans.
In Arizona, Holly is recovering from a house fire that has left her in a critical condition. Unable to care for her two children at present, they have gone to the place she never wanted them to visit, their grandparents' farm, her childhood home, in Iowa. She is scared for them, but only because she doesn't want them to have the life she fought hard to escape.
As a police officer, Meg has to be prepared for anything. As a mother, nothing is more important than her daughter Maria. So a hostage situation at Maria's school brings her two roles together in an explosive way.
At 70 years old, Will should be winding down in life, but with a farm to run and now his grandkids to care for things are getting busier and tougher than ever. It's hard to start up a relationship with a 13 year old and a 7 year old. They can be so frustrating. Of course he loves them, but he might not say so all that much. Now he's wishing he'd told them every second of every day, how precious they were to him.
And then there's Augie whose family is melting away bit by bit. First her dad left, then she nearly killed her mum. She'll be damned if she's going to let anything happen to her brother, even if that means she has to wedge herself between him and the barrel of a gun.
Told with each chapter alternating between these various characters' points of view, this is the story of a school siege as seen from inside and outside the locked down building. Part thriller but also part family drama, there's also more than a hint of a detective story too as there are several potential suspects and no way for those inside the school to let the wider world know the details of what is going on.
This isn't the first school shooting book I've read, and I expected it to be quite similar to "Nineteen Minutes" by Jodi Picoult. Gudenkauf's style is quite similar to Picoult's, so as I started I was wondering whether this would be a good book in its own right, or one that would forever be compared to the earlier title. It's amazing what you can do with quite narrow a topic, and this book was as different as it could have been given that the two shared the same overall focus. There are so many things going on in this book that the gunman is simply the one common denominator. Many characters use their time in the spotlight to recount stories from the past that have little relevance on the present other than serving to add to their characters, building up a picture in the mind of the reader.
This story is not as sad or as unsettling as I had anticipated, and P.J. in particular can be quite unwittingly hilarious at times. It's a thought provoking book - it's scary how many people in a small town might have the motive to storm into a school waving around a firearm - but it's not a tear jerker.
This book takes place over a few hours, with the gunman arriving after lunch and most of the action being over by nightfall, but the jumps back in time add different layers to the story and the jumps from perspective to perspective keep the pace going. My first experience of Gudenkauf was "The Weight of Silence" which similarly covered quite a short period, and it's something she does well.
This is a remarkable book that twists and turns to get to the end of the maze. It made me groan several times with the character cliffhangers that come about when it's someone else's turn to take over the story, but all that happened was I had to keep reading just a few more chapters so I could find out what happened next.
It's a good thing all books aren't like this, because if they were I'd never get anything done. I read this one relentlessly and sank straight into it from the first page, barely putting it down until I got to the end. "One Breath Away" took all my breath away, and I'm tempted to re-read it immediately so I can enjoy it all over again.
This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk
Out now in paperback, and really rather cheap on Kindle too if that's your thing. Either way, highly recommended!