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.