This reading group guide for A Single Breath includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lucy Clarke. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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When Eva’s husband, Jackson, dies in a fishing accident after less than ten months of marriage, she travels to his native Tasmania, hoping to find comfort and closure by visiting his estranged family. What she discovers, however, is that her husband was not the man she thought he was. As she struggles to come to terms with Jackson’s deception, she finds herself more and more drawn to his brother, Saul, who offers her intimacy, passion, and a window into her husband’s past. When a shocking secret about Jackson comes to light, Eva must find a way to rediscover her own truths and forge a new future. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Eva suffers greatly in the first half of the novel. She’s devastated by Jackson’s death and then by the miscarriage of their baby, but she also deals with aching loneliness and feeling like she’s lost her identity. Why do you think she repeatedly pushes away her family and Callie to be in Tasmania alone? Do you think it was the right decision for her?
2. When they first meet, Saul is distant toward Eva, yet over time they develop a close relationship. Despite his desire to tell Eva the truth about Jackson, he does not, and Eva only finds out accidentally. How do you think Eva should have found out? What would you have done if you were Saul?
3. As the backstory of Jackson and Eva’s relationship emerges, it becomes clear that Eva overlooked a few red flags about her husband: the occasional white lie, his irresponsible spending habits, and the evening she found him crying in the shower. Do you think Eva was too naïve about Jackson? Would you have questioned any of these incidents?
4. Do you find Jackson at all sympathetic? What do you make of his decision to hide his first marriage from Eva? Do you think his good intentions and genuine love for Eva excuse his behavior in any way?
5. Jackson tells Eva that meeting her gave him the opportunity to start over: “So many nights I’d lie awake beside you and wonder, if I’d told you the truth from the start, would you still have fallen in love with me? A married bartender from Tasmania who’d committed manslaughter” (328). Do you think Eva would have felt the same way about Jackson had she known the truth?
6. Discuss how Jeanette and Jackson’s decision to cover up the truth about the bush fire impacts the rest of their lives, shaping their relationship and spawning a series of other lies that spin out of their control. Do you blame one more than the other for the terrible repercussions of this tragic event?
7. Eva is initially ashamed to tell Callie that she might have feelings for Saul: “She can see by Callie’s expression that she is thinking the exact same thing as Eva: But he’s Jackson’s brother
” (160). Were you ever opposed to Saul and Eva’s relationship? Is there a moment in the book that changed your initial opinion?
8. On p. 336, Eva wonders, “Had she fallen in love with Jackson because he was borrowing the details of Saul’s life, or had she fallen for Saul because he was an extension of Jackson?” What do you think attracts Eva to Saul? Would she have fallen for Saul if she hadn’t known Jackson first?
9. Both Eva’s mother and Saul and Jackson’s father have endured terrible losses in the past, and their grief has shaped their relationships with their children. Compare and contrast how Eva, Saul, and Jackson cope with the emotional fragility of their respective parents. Do you think it is justifiable to lie to your loved ones if you believe it will spare them from suffering?
10. Ultimately, Saul forgives Jackson for his mistakes, but he never wants to see him again. What do think about this decision? Do you think Saul and Jackson will ever fully reconcile? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Lucy Clarke indicates in the Author’s Note that Bruny Island was her inspiration behind the fictional setting of Wattleboon. Research Bruny Island with your book club. Does it look the same as you imagined? Why or why not?
2. Eva finds solace in learning how to free-dive. Have each member of your book club discuss their favorite way to de-stress and unwind. How do these activities make you feel? Why do you think you are drawn to your particular passion?
3. If you enjoyed A Single Breath
, read Lucy Clarke’s previous novel, Swimming at Night
, for your next book club meeting. Discuss the similarities and differences between the two novels.
4. Learn more about Lucy Clarke at www.lucy-clarke.com or follow her on Twitter @LucyClarkeBooks. A Conversation with Lucy Clarke Where did the inspiration for A Single Breath come from?
The idea came from two very separate threads. In 2011, I visited Tasmania for the first time and fell in love with its wild beauty and its remote shacks. Later on that year, I heard about a friend-of-a-friend who was leading a double life in order to hide a huge secret from their family. I was intrigued by the idea of the unknowability of those closest to us and thought how devastating it would be to find out the truth only when that person had gone. These two threads began to weave together, stitching themselves into the beginning of a story. In the novel, Saul shares his passion for free-diving with Eva. Do you free-dive?
I learned to scuba dive in Tasmania and had a fantastic time swimming alongside sea dragons, draughtboard sharks, and huge rays, but I found the dive tanks and thick winter wetsuits very heavy and restrictive, so I was excited to try free-diving instead. However, it quickly became apparent that I have the lung capacity of an aging hamster, so my free-diving career never really took off! Luckily my husband free-dives and spearfishes and is very patient when answering the barrage of questions I fire off when he returns to shore. Secrets play a large role in A Single Breath. Under what circumstances is keeping a secret necessary?
There is something so irresistible about secrets. The moment I hear someone whisper, “I’ve got a secret,” my ears prick up. I’m sure that many people keep the odd secret in order to protect someone they care about, and most of these will be harmless enough. But then there are those darker secrets, the ones that are tightly wrapped with lies and presented as truth. Those are the dangerous ones—and also the ones that are wonderfully exciting to explore in fiction! What’s next for Jackson, Saul, and Eva? Do you imagine a future for them beyond the ending of the book?
It is not an easy story with easy answers. I think that Eva and Saul have a tricky path ahead of them. They will have to negotiate many issues, such as: Will their friends and families accept their relationship? Will they choose to make their home in Tasmania or England? Will they one day regret not allowing Jackson back into their lives? For my part, I like to believe that Saul and Eva’s love for each other is strong and deep enough to survive the challenges that await them. Jackson tells us that a shack is a bolt-hole, “a place to disappear to when you’re craving some space, some wilderness” (p. 73). Do you have a bolt-hole?
Yes, I do! My bolt-hole is actually a beach hut on the south coast of England, where I do much of my writing. I love being near the water when I write, and I also love that feeling of space and quiet: no emails, no phone calls, just the sea and my notebook. Heaven! According to your author bio, you and your husband spend your winters traveling. How does travel inform and inspire your writing?
There is something about slinging a few belongings into a bag and heading off on a plane, train, or ferry that gives me the most incredible sense of freedom. The break from routine, the stepping out of one’s ordinary world and into another, is surely good for the soul. (At least, it feels very good to my
soul!) What I see, hear, smell, and taste while traveling certainly inspires my writing, but it is also the very fact of being away that I find interesting in terms of fiction. I’m intrigued to see how characters behave outside the usual parameters of their daily lives. Routine can be limiting, so I like to explore what happens when a character is taken out of their comfort zone and dislocated from their family and friends. What then? How was the process of writing A Single Breath different—if at all—from writing your debut novel, Swimming at Night?
The process was very similar in that both novels started as a simple idea, which I then drafted and redrafted, layering it into a story. The main difference was that I was running a business when I was writing Swimming at Night
, so it took me much longer to complete the novel. With A Single Breath
, I was able to enjoy the luxury of being a full-time novelist, so I could completely immerse myself in the story for long stretches of time.