Monday, 3 January 2011


spoiler alert: mild spoilers

Aaaaaah.....just finished Tim Winton's 2008 novel Breath. His two Booker nominations not withstanding, he wasn't an author I was aware of. I was pleasantly surprised.
More than that: Breath is a wonderful read. Mind you, it is also a frustrating book in some ways.
The surfing really works. I was skeptical at first, and actually there are moments when it isn't so good, but over all, I got it.
Winton is clearly a prose stylist, though his language is rooted in Australian slang; a working class language that is as colourful as the desert around Alice Springs.

So while it might be a relatively short book it comes across quite rich. Like a densely chocolate pudding or a fine wine. There's a lot going on there.
He seems to use a different word for the same thing every time. Waves are described with a linguistic energy that is almost as dashing as the spray itself.
On the flip side the plot is pretty much one storyline. There are three main characters, but you don't get much sense of subplot. Subtext, maybe, but not subplot. In this sense it's more novella than full blown novel.
Actually, I've done a bit of surfing. No let me correct that. In the terms of this book, I am not a surfer. I have not even surfed. But I have been in the water with surfers, beginners like me, and I have attempted to stand on a board. Once I think I even managed it, for a second or so, before falling off. I reckon the wave was three or four feet max.
Breath's characters are surfing artistes who dream of 20 ft breakers a mile out to sea. They dare to surf in bays occupied by sharks. They risk life and limb by taking their boards out to reefs. Each moment of danger they suck up: it brings life to the rest of their existence.
The narrator, Pikelet, is only 13 at the start of the novel. Or rather, at the start of the reminiscence. Pikelet the narrator is now a near fifty-year old paramedic with a dark past. His formative years, it turns out, really screwed him up. Those years, you'll be relieved to hear, are what Breath is all about.
There's a wonderful depiction here of smalltown friendships, of guys hanging out despite themselves, of diverging ambitions and world views. Pikelet and Loonie become followers, of a sort, to a surf guru, Sando. Sando teaches them how to surf, how to live: but in doing so he messes them both up.
Pikelet becomes aware of death in a way the others don't. He begins to fear it, and you get the sense that it haunts him. When he has an affair with Sando's wife this fear, plus his sense of alienation, comes to the fore. Sexually he's a mess: the relationship leaves him scarred.
It is all very moving and credible. Well, perhaps up to a point. I found myself wondering a little about the rest of Pikelet's life. Are his problems really to do with this series of relationships with the surfers? Is that the conclusion we are to make? Does this affair with a much older woman, when he was still under age, really explain his strangeness in later life? In the end I really didn't think it did.
I'm not even sure if the 'older Pikelet' was necessary to the story. I could have done without it and Winton would have been better leaving it to my own imagination what happened to the young man who loved surfing but knew he didn't want to drown on some lonely atoll.
Breath, more than anything I guess, is about young men and their sense of immortality. Their desire to make a mark on the world, and the weird way they create passions that lets them do it. From that point of view it is an exhilarating read.
It is also about the transience of youth, and of life in general. Surfing, as an activity, so neatly sums that up. To surf is to live: fleeting moments of glory sandwiched by long periods of angst and preparation and hard work.
One regret. Somehow, although I loved the prose and found the surfing scenes fascinating, I felt the first half of the book in particular a little thin. Pikelet is all there, but the other characters felt like cyphers. Two dimensional. Sando was perhaps the most disappointing. I say perhaps, because there were moments when he surprised me, when I found him intriguing. Other times, when he came across as a guru cliche, extrapolated from the pages of The Beach or Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury cartoon strip. This didn't ruin the experience of reading Breath, but it did knock a few points off.

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