Breath, by Tim Winton

by Alison Stedman
Published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Group), 2008.

Breath is the ninth and most recent novel of Australian novelist Tim Winton, and it explores the life of a middle-aged surfer struggling to come to terms with his scarred youth. The story begins when Bruce Pike, a middle-aged paramedic, is called out to what appears to be a case of teenage suicide. However, “Pikelet” immediately recognises it as something else. The situation prompts him to look back on his days growing up in a small milling town in Western Australia with his friend Loonie. The two boys, aged twelve and thirteen when their story begins, are compulsive daredevils who push each other further and further, taking greater risks to amuse themselves. Finally, and perhaps inevitably, they discover surfing, and are soon taken under the wing of Sando, the mysterious and brilliant older surfer living near the beach. Despite their dislike for his wife Eva, the boys spend more and more time with Sando, pushing the limits further and surfing increasingly dangerous waves. When Pikelet is gradually outstripped in fearlessness by Loonie, he begins to be left behind as Sando starts taking Loonie on surfing trips with him around the world, and Pikelet gets caught up in a damaging affair with Sando’s wife, the effects of which will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Everything else aside, Winton’s writing style alone is enough to make this book worth reading. His command of words is almost magical. Every word is carefully chosen, without the appearance of being at all laboured, and somehow manages to convey beauty without breaking away from the voice of his boyish narrator. As Pikelet says of his first big wave, “there was still something ponderous about the movement of the water. On TV I’d seen elephants run beside safari jeeps, pounding along at incredibly speed while seeming to move in slow motion, and that’s exactly how it was: hectic noise, immense force driven up through the feet and knees, all in a kind of stoptime.” Winton is a surfer, yet his descriptions of surfing are never inaccessible to the lay reader. The sense of the power of the sea is always present, and it is easy to jump into the head of his characters, to see what they see: “I felt fabulous, completely charged. I was not a coward or a kook. I knew what I was doing and it wasn’t within a bull’s roar of being ordinary.”

Winton’s plot is intriguing. The way he treats the beginning incident is especially interesting. I wondered immediately why this seemingly open-and-shut case was not a suicide, and was drawn further into the story when Pikelet immediately starts considering his youth, as if two seemingly unconnected matters have something in common. Throughout the novel, I sometimes wondered if everything Winton writes needed to be there, but by the end, the tight connections of the entire plot are clear. The ending is classic Winton—a major event, a revelation—but not an easy ending. It is almost a disappointing anticlimax, and not what the reader necessarily expects.

It is never just about the words, though. Neither is it just about what “happens”, or this book could be for the first half a tedious recital of scary waves. For one thing, Winton’s characters are a pleasure to read, and I found myself liking them from very early on, although I couldn’t understand why. Loonie is a self-absorbed show-off, Sando can be ridiculous in his guru persona, Eva is irresponsible to the point of cruelty, but Winton never allows us to turn any of these characters into a villain. He is a sympathetic author, who rebels against easy plot devices, and so creates much more satisfying and complete characters than the average writer. As he writes, “No, Eva was not ordinary. And neither was the form of consolation she preferred. Given my time over I would not do it again. People talk such a storm of crap about the things they’ve done, had done to them. The deluded bullshit I’ve endured in circled chairs on lino floors. She had no business doing what she did, but I’m through hating and blaming. People are fools, not monsters.”

However, Pikelet, his narrator, is the character we can identify with most of all. His need for a mentor, his fear of being ordinary, his sense of failure, his pleasure in the beautiful—all this could find an echo in most readers, although Pikelet is clearly not just any other kid. As he describes his first impression of surfing, “I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.” Winton thus translates surfing for any reader who sees value in doing things that are pointless yet lovely (as most readers of novels probably will). This appreciation of beauty stays with Pikelet throughout his life. While he finally accepts that being ordinary is “not so bad,” while Sando, Loonie and Eva gradually destroy themselves in search of bigger and better thrills, Pikelet retains his love for “dancing on water,” despite all the damage that has been done to him. I would suggest this is the real conclusion of the book, instead of the disappointing resolution to the introduction. It is an unexpected and powerful way to close.

In Winton’s careful weaving of all elements of his novel, then, he has written another compelling and masterful novel, which will be no disappointment for Winton fans and a great introduction to his novels for new readers.

Alison Stedman is a senior editor at Halfway Down the Stairs. For staff biographies, click here.

© 2008, Alison Stedman