#Book review # A Breath Too Late by Rocky Callen



From the blurb:
A haunting and breathtaking YA contemporary debut, cut through with light and romance, about a seventeen-year-old girl who relives the events leading up to her suicide—perfect for fans of Girl in Pieces, Speak, and All the Bright Places.

Seventeen-year-old Ellie had no hope left. Yet the day after she dies by suicide, she finds herself in the midst of an out-of-body experience. She is a spectator, swaying between past and present, retracing the events that unfolded prior to her death.

But there are gaps in her memory, fractured pieces Ellie is desperate to re-assemble. There’s her mother, a songbird who wanted to break free from her oppressive cage. The boy made of brushstrokes and goofy smiles who brought color into a gray world. Her brooding father, with his sad puppy eyes and clenched fists. Told in epistolary-like style, this tour de force of a novel sensitively examines the beautiful and terrible moments that make up a life and the possibilities that live in even the darkest of places.


My thoughts:

The topic of this debut novel is very difficult to discuss, so we often avoid talking about it. Teenage suicide, unfortunately, happens, and let me start by reiterating the main message of this book:

‘Be tenacious in your quest to find hope in your life…The world needs you in it.’

There is help, there are people who want to hear from you, people who will listen and understand. If you are suffering or know somebody who is, reach out. Type in Suicide Prevention and find a number to call.

It takes a particular courage to write a story like this. I wasn’t surprised to find out that the author worked as a behavioural therapist for ten years. She is very clear about what she wants to say in this brief novel: life consists of good and bad moments, first love and friendship, music, art, dreams of becoming something bigger, and sometimes darker days when you might feel too tired to feel joy or anything at all. Yet, you matter, your life, your existence matters to people around you.

There are only four characters in this book: Ellie Walker, a 17-year-old girl who committed suicide the day before the beginning of the story, her mother, her abusive father, and her best friend (and more) August Matthews. Ellie comes back to a ghostlike existence and sees the effect of her death on the people she loves, but her memories are incomplete. Gradually, she is trying to reconstruct her life and her last moments. She cannot touch, hug or comfort her mother when she sees her ashen face. She learns that her mother has been saving money to run away with Ellie after Ellie’s graduation. Had Ellie listened, had she insisted on talking, she would have known that there was this possibility of turning their lives round in a different place. Ellie sees August’s despair and gradually pieces together the story of their friendship, their hideaway games, and eventually their love that was full of promise. She sees how much she mattered to him. Had she told him about what it was really like to live with her father, had she given him a chance to prove that not all love ends in a caged existence and suffering, their story might have been different.

The writing is very dramatic, and perhaps I am more used to toned-down realistic descriptions, as opposed to emotional outcries and metaphors. The important thing is that Ellie, the main character is expressing herself, she is talking about her depression and feeling helpless to protect her mother, she is shouting, even if it is ‘a breath too late’, and the reader knows she realises she made a mistake which she cannot correct.

The author chooses to give Ellie a closure. Her mother isn’t going to have one. Nobody gets over a death of their child. They just develop ways of coping. August is left thinking that his love was not enough, he was not enough, and it is going to take time, care, and emotional work to understand that it’s not true. And this is another sad thing about suicides: the person who chooses to end their life leaves their loved ones with permanent self-doubts and unanswered questions.
Ellie wishes she could turn back the clock and undo her decision, because she finally understands she loves life. Life gives us possibilities – we need to keep on looking for them, however difficult it is, and sometimes we need to reach for help.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) for the ARC provided in exchange for an honest and unbiased opinion.

Join the Conversation


    1. Thank you Yesha! There were moments in this book when I though to myself ‘That’s it, your instinct for self-preservation and protecting your child should take over, run away, save yourself and your child!’ I guess there are many reasons why women stay: fear, lack of resources and social support, sometimes not knowing that what they are experiencing is not normal, it is abuse…All of these are extremely sad.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Such an important topic especially in the climate we find ourselves in today. I read that the calls to the suicide hotline in Ca have increased 300%. I can certainly understand how this would be a difficult book to read, Toni. Terrific review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are hard times with a lot of stress and anxiety over future, but like you said hotlines with people who will listen and help are there. Being heard and understood can make a lot of difference.
      Thank you, Marialyce!❤


    1. Thank you, Jonetta! The author mentioned that she herself almost took the same step when she was 11. Also, she clearly knows how to describe depression, although she doesn’t focus on it specifically. Child depression is another topic that rarely gets discussed.

      Liked by 1 person

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