Tim Winton’s latest novel, Breath, takes its first gasping breath in a fast-moving scene, flush with speed and emotion, and loaded with question marks. Written in the first-person, present-tense – which gives rapid movement to any written work – this first glimpse into Breath is… well, breathtaking. From there, the story rapidly slows into retro mode – slipping gently into past-tense, and dipping back into the late sixties to a hidden past of languid and leisurely boyhood.
Bruce Pike, or Pikelet to those who knew him well, is a good kid teetering on the edge of many a regular Aussie boyhood – that delicate precipice between general teen survival and pushing the boundaries of life. Pikelet’s journey takes us on a mashed-up voyage into a world of desire and innocent bravado – to taste life at its most provocative, to push the limits of physical endurance, to understand the world, to feel a sense of belonging, to balance on morality, to feel and even stalk danger.
Most of this journey takes place in the sea, where Pikelet and his wayward friend Loonie, take to the water like wet-suited ducks. Their watery fascination begins innocently enough with daredevil dives to the bottom of creeks where holding one’s breath until stars burst behind the eyes is a small price to pay when chasing the two-minute underwater record.
Very soon, thanks to an entrancing relationship with the much older and very nomadic pro surfer and local layabout, Sando, the boys are careening headlong into the ocean waves, where they encounter not only the ability to ride increasingly fearsome water, but begin to explore the very meaning of masculine strength, vulnerability and sense of Self.
With the aide of the deliciously irreverent Eva, Sando’s wife, Breath doesn’t, however, lose itself in a machismo surf story that leaves women sitting forlornly on the shore fiddling with bikini straps and suntan lotion. For me, as a female reader, the book does explore more than just a boy’s rite of passage into bravery and manly derring-do. As Eva becomes more of a central player, and as the relationship between Sando and his two young muses develops, things shift, opening up wounds and fresh possibility to expand on Pikelet’s innocence and curiosity. This movement also brings with it some interesting history, and the added desire to jump headlong into the future and see what comes of it all.
The guts of Winton’s novel is beautifully expressed, not only through his infallible ability to describe the human experience, but also through a very believable and affable storyline that skirts the edges of morality and self-respect, and even manages to conjure the ability to be downright creepy. Despite a quickly wrapped-up ending that leaps and bounds suddenly and a little disappointingly across the years, it’s clear to the reader that this story wasn’t meant to unravel an entire lifetime. It was instead written with dedicated focus on a small part of Pikelet’s life that shaped his destiny like a tri-fin thruster. It’s just too bad that I wanted a more drawn-out ending. This was all Winton wanted to give – and it works.
Despite the rawness of this book’s ending, Winton’s main character doesn’t succumb to a mind-blowing conclusion. This is a character we could all know – and indeed, a character whose parts can be found in anyone who passed through teen years, whether it passed on the crest of a wave or on the tip of a mountain or in the drudgery of an ordinary suburban home. What is most beautiful about Pikelet, and indeed, about all of Winton’s characters, is that they are both exceptional and ordinary, making readers desperate to learn more, whilst remaining totally affiliated.
But what astounded me most about Winton’s eighth novel is that despite its heavy and constant descriptions of the ocean and its surf, I failed to even once see a repetitive hand. How Winton managed to dispense an almost incalculable amount of adjectives and visuals on the ocean alone, I cannot know. Each time I read of this churning, thundering place, it was as though I was reading anew. Each giant curl, rolling tube, crashing whitewash and ripping tide had me totally caught up and clutching at my chest to breathe.
If Winton had indeed intended for readers to hold their breath during the consumption of this novel, he can rest assured his work was well done.
Postscript – 19 June 2009: Breath by Tim Winton has won the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award.