‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

Breath

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 247 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

You’ve got to hand it to Tim Winton for being able to pick a theme and really work it. In Breath, his eighth novel, he focuses on the concept of breath — and breathing — so that it infuses almost every page. But he does it so delicately you’re not even aware that it’s happening — a bit like breathing itself — until you put the book down and mull things over.

A gentle story

I read Breath over the course of a few cold winter days and found myself mesmirised by the gentle, occasionally heart-breaking, story that unfolds, of a boy growing up on the Western Australian coast in the 1970s. Bruce Pike, or “pikelet”, is an outsider — his parents are English immigrants — who has no friends and lacks confidence. The only time he is ever sure of himself is when he is swimming in the local river or surfing in the ocean.

But when he meets “Loonie”, the town’s wild child, everything changes. The pair aren’t exactly kindred spirits, but there’s a bond between them — mainly in the form of “deep diving and breath-holding against the clock”.

Looking for added excitement, they save their pennies and invest in “real surfboards” made out of “proper foam and fibreglass” which “were tokens of our arrival”.

I will always remember my first wave that morning. The smells of paraffin wax and brine and peppy scrub. The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward and I sprang to my feet, skating with the wind of momentum in my ears. I leant across the wall of upstanding water and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary watching figure on the beach and the flash of Loonie’s smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated.

The solitary figure on the beach (as per the quote above) turns out to be the linchpin of this story. His name is Sando, he has a Kombi van, a red dog, a lovely house by the ocean and an American wife with a chip on her shoulder and a stroppy attitude to match. He is in his 30s (“that made him a genuinely old guy”) and, although the boys don’t immediately know it, he was once an international champion surfer.

Tests their courage

Over the course of a summer he hangs out with Pikelet and Loonie and tests their courage by taking them surfing in often dangerous and remote locations.

For the first time in his life Pikelet experiences exhilaration and finds something that he is exceptionally good at. But there are limits to his bravery — and it is finding that line between fear and stupidity that shapes his character.

It also makes him realise that perhaps the friendship he shares with Loonie is not really friendship at all.

He hurled himself at the world. You could never second-guess him and once he embarked on something there was no holding him back. Yet the same stuff you marvelled at could really wear you down. Some Mondays I was relieved to be back on the school bus.

An unexpected twist

I won’t spoil the plot, but about two-thirds of the way through Pikelet’s story takes an unexpected — and erotic — twist that I never saw coming. That’s despite the fact that the opening chapter, written from the perspective of a middle-aged Pikelet looking back on his formative years, lays the ground for what it is to come.

What appears to be a rather gentle coming-of-age story turns into quite a heart-hammering and confronting read, one that shocks and frightens in equal measure. Yet Winton never resorts to sensationalism or author trickery; he simply tells the tale of a teenage boy’s secret past in simple, straightforward prose — and it feels all the more compelling for it.

And I love how the narrative is so strongly tied to the ocean and all things aquatic; it almost reads like a loveletter to the sea.

Breath won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2009 and the Age Book of the Year Fiction Prize in 2008. It was shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers Prize (south-east Asia and south Pacific region) and Queensland Premiers Literary Awards 2008.

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16 thoughts on “‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

  1. Very nice review. I really liked this story too but then I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every book I’ve read by Winton. Dirt Music was my first, The Riders, Cloudstreet, all exceptional. I’ll be reading more as I get hold of them. Starting Gilgamesh today for Aussie Lit Month, hope it’s good.

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  2. Thanks, Sandra. This is only my third Tim Winton novel and I’m beginning to think I might need to add him to my favourite authors page. I have Dirt Music in the queue.
    Hope you enjoy Gilgamesh, I’ve only ever heard great things about it. Am tempted to see if my library might have it in stock. Be interested to hear what you think of it once you’ve finished…

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  3. This was the second Winton novel, and like you, it was one that gripped me early on and that I read it through in something of a trance. I have little to no interest in surfing so I was actually quite surprised that I found this book so captivating, but I really did. I read it long enough ago that I don’t fully remember much about it anymore, but I just went back and read my review (http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com/?p=2118) and I still really love that quote at the end that I chose to feature. And the erotic storyline kind of disappointed me (definitely didn’t see the book heading there!), but overall I did like the book. Note to self: read more Winton!

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  4. This is an excellent book – I love Winton’s work 🙂 ‘Dirt Music’ is well worth it, but I haven’t been disappointed by any so far really. ‘Shallows’ is another interesting one to try.

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  5. Thanks, Steph. I’ve read your review (and left a comment) and I think you pretty much nailed it: I loved the book, the writing, the story, the way he explores the theme of breathing, but… but… I found the twist in the narrative a bit icky and, frankly, shocking. But I think it ties very nicely to the theme and the very first chapter of the book. So, in terms of plotting/story arc, it’s very well done.

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  6. I think he is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. I have Dirt Music to try and then it will be off to the library to explore more, assuming they have his titles in stock.

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  7. Great review kimbofo … so glad you liked it. (If you are interested in my review – a brief-ish one as I read it a little before I started blogging you can find it via my Index:Authors page). It’s one of those books that leaves you, well, breathless … a few years after finishing it, it still pops into my head at all sorts of times. He just nails that adolescent boy love of risk taking and that dark section you talk about works well too. And, on top of all this, though I’m not a surfer, I found his descriptions of surfing – how can I describe it without using book reviewer cliches? – just the most beautiful thing. They say writers should write what they know, and Winton knows boys and surfing … and he can write. A deadly combination!

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  8. I’ve just read your review and concur! The benefit of reading so many Australian novels so close together is finding common themes and one of them is the fear of being ordinary, which Winton explores superbly in Breath. But it also comes up in Tsiolkas’ Loaded (Ari does not want to be ordinary, which he equates with dull), Cate Kennedy’s World Beneath (the father, whose name escapes me now, does not want to settle for an ordinary life and fears that his daughter will see him as ordinary) and in Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide (Aljaz, the river guide, has spent his whole life as an outsider but doesn’t want to be ordinary). This makes me wonder is there something in the Australian psyche…?
    Here’s Whispering Gums’ review for those who are interested: http://whisperinggums.wordpress.com/2009/06/19/tim-winton-versus-thea-astley/

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  9. It was a treat to read your review of a book I too loved. When you have that realization that the groundwork for a major plot twist has been laid, well, that’s exhilarating. But I agree that it was an icky concept — hard to imagine, but then I own up to being dull and ordinary in some areas. And Steph, I too mentioned the beauty of “men dancing on water” quote in my blog so that I will remember that image. What a writer he is.

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  10. I read this book after Mariella Frostrup raved about it on Radio 4 – I think she said it was one of her favourite books of that year – and thoroughly enjoyed it, your review reminded me how much!

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  11. Cheers, Charlotte. I remember reading that first chapter and being slightly puzzled, and even more so when the story immediately switched to his time growing up… I mean, what was the connection? And then… WOW… he brilliant ties it all up at the end. Very clever stuff.

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  12. I’ll be awaiting your review of Cloudstreet, Claire. Be interested to see if liked it or not… I really ought to read it again (I read it more than 20 years ago), because I can’t remember much about it other than I loved it at the time.

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  13. I have to be honest and say the whole surfing element had put me off reading this book for so long… but I don’t know why I was worried. Winton writes so beautifully about the sea and what it is like to surf a wave and put yourself at its mercy that I realise it was churlish of me to think I wouldn’t like it. The whole surfing element is what makes this book so wonderful. Glad you enjoyed the novel, Stu.

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