Author: Amanda Jaeger
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Publication Date: 15 March 2022
Available As: Paperback and e-book
Richard Teft would rather live life recklessly numb than face the suffocating reality around him. Beautiful blonde women in Samhale County are being murdered right under his nose, and if he stopped drinking himself into darkness long enough to investigate, he might be forced to accept personal responsibility for their last breaths.
One by one, another pretty face joins the parade of dead women, but there is one Richard is terrified will join the lineup: Amy Jones, the sunshine of Samhale, who makes the butterflies in his stomach fly in drunken loops. With broken memories of blonde ringlets wrapped around his fingers and dead eyes filling him with guilt, could his blackouts be a coincidental happenstance? Or are the suffocating demons inside of him dark enough to steal the last breaths of the woman he loves?
BreathTaken is a psychological thriller from the wonderfully talented Amanda Jaeger. The book is comprised of twenty-five chapters and one prologue and takes place in the town of Samhale, a close-knit community with a strong emphasis on helping others and offering support to those less fortunate. At the forefront of these efforts is Amy Jones, the beautiful and caring next-door neighbour of main character Richard Teft; the prologue establishes that Amy has a big heart and a bit of a crush on Richard, despite her being married to Neil. This opening sequence perfectly captures how the spark can just kind of dull in a marriage over time and the mind can wander to others, perhaps those more considerate and capable than your partner, and Richard certainly meets those criteria; not only is he physically attractive to Amy, but he’s quite handy and attentive, since he remembers her favourite flowers and other details that Neil tends to miss or take for granted.
Once the narrative switches to focus on Richard, though, we quickly learn that he is equally infatuated with Amy; in fact, he’s practically obsessed to the point of distraction by her! His entire personality and mental health is shattered when he finds his mother dead and he shoulders much of the blame for this on himself since he failed to fix her door lock, and the guilt and pain drive him to alcoholism and cost him his job as a tree feller due to showing up to work drunk and endangering others. The bright spot in his life is Amy; her hair, smile, heart, and shapely form is the one thing keeping him from completely degenerating into a downward spiral, and just seeing her face causes the “butterflies” to swell throughout his body. He pines for her relentlessly, fantasising about being with her and acting on his deepfelt impulses, and even goes out of his way to try and help her with her charity work, only to struggle to pull himself together and step away from the comfort offered by alcohol. Richard is innately jealous of Neil, who appears to have everything he could possibly want, and frequently daydreams about taking Neil’s place and having Amy all to himself, to the point where he starts to believe a neighbourhood tree is speaking to him and pushing him to distance himself from her lest he drag her down with him or see the disappointment in her eyes at the state he finds himself in.
Although Richard is a tragic figure, having suffered a great loss and overwhelmed by his grief, his uncomfortable obsession with Amy paints him as a questionable figure. This isn’t helped by the book’s switching narrative focus as chapters jump between Richard, a young girl called Mills, and an unnamed killer who’s equally obsessed with the neighbourhood women. While Richard loses himself to anguish and alcohol, an equally infatuated and broken killer stalks the blonde-haired women of Samhale. Chapters told from the killer’s point of view are disturbing, to say the least; the killer favours suffocating his victims with a pillowcase to steal their breath and them smother himself with it as a means to subdue his laboured breathing. The killer is very meticulous in his approach, easily getting close to his victims, observing them from afar, and breaking into their houses to catch them unawares, and is made only more creepy by his tendency to sing a little nursery rhyme as he “works” and his single-minded focus in curing his breathing problems by working his way up to Amy. Amanda does a wonderful job of peppering the story with many suspects who could be the killer as many of the main characters struggle with their breath, the nursery rhyme is quite well known, and the murders soon become so notorious that local women fear for their safety and consider dying their hair to avoid being targeted.
Amidst all of this is Mills, a rebellious little girl who sneaks out of her house at night to skateboard around the neighbourhood and spy on her neighbours regardless of the danger in her town. An observant and intelligent young girl, she doesn’t always understand what she’s seeing but is well aware than adults often lie to kids to shield them from the truth. Her nightly wanderings mean she spots the killer lurking around town, but she hesitates to say anything since she’ll get in trouble for being out and no-one would believe her anyway. She crosses paths with Richard when he’s hit rock bottom and helps to show a different perspective on many of the events happening in the town, acting as a buffer between the crazy and obsessive nature of Richard and the killer. Another prominent character is Gladys, Richard’s nosy neighbour who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and stick her oar in where it’s not wanted. Her blunt commentary is often the stark reminder Richard needs of how far he’s fallen but no-one, not even Amy, can help pull him out of his rut since his mindset has deteriorated so much.
BreathTaken is a very different story compared to Amanda’s last book; the narrative is much tighter and focuses squarely on these three characters and their different mindsets rather than fleshing out Samhale beyond how these characters perceive it. While the narrative can become a little repetitive given that both Richard and the killer spend many chapters circling and reinforcing their obsessions, it’s a pretty desolate exploration of one man’s descent into grief and hardship and his struggles to turn away from the bottle and get his life back in order. The chapters following the killer were also disturbingly well done, and I really enjoyed the red herrings scattered throughout the text and how unsettling the killer’s methods and thoughts were. The idea that someone was so jealous of another person’s ability to breathe properly and is determined to “steal” that gift and take it for themselves is very disturbing since it shows just how far off the deep end this killer has fallen. The reveal of the killer’s true identity was very impactful and the tale takes a turn towards the insane as we spend more time with the killer as they completely drop their façade and let the crazy come through; I actually found the finale much more enjoyable and better executed than in Amanda’s previous book, showing that the author is definitely progressing with each new tale. Another positive of BreathTaken is how different it is in terms of style and narrative compared to Amanda’s last book, which helps showcase her range, and she definitely has a brilliant grasp of the psychology behind her killers and characters. While the repetitive aspects did let it down a little bit, I enjoyed her characterisations and the bizarre nature of their personalities, and I think fans of murder mysteries would definitely find a lot to sink their teeth into here.
If you’re interested in checking out BreathTaken, and to learn more about Amanda Jaeger and her journey as an author, visit the links at the top of the page.