Breath by Tim Winton

By Philip Spires September 06, 2017 0

Breath by Tim Winton is a deceptively complex novel wrapped in an apparently simple tale. On one level it might be a story about surfing. It isn't. On another level, it's a straightforward coming-of-age novel, where an adolescent lad is introduced to the tingling realities of maturity. But it is more than this. Breath might also be about small town lives, the limits of friendship, or our ability to seek gratification by selfishly exploiting circumstance. Equally, it might be about the relentless restlessness of ambition and the illusion of achievement, the elation of success alongside the disillusioning devastation of failure. Breath's complexity, expressed through its utter simplicity of setting and construction, is immense, for it is all of these things and more besides. Breath is also vivid, brilliant, even glittering in its conjuring of pictures that communicate the landscape, or seascape, of its setting.

Breath's central character, Bruce Pike, is now in his middle age and works as a paramedic. But as an adolescent, he lived through a coming-of-age amidst the thrills, dangers and challenges of surf. He rode the waves of his youth and survived to tell the tale. And thus the novel opens with the mature Pike attending the scene of a suicide. A kid has hanged himself, taken his last breath, and denied himself all others. It's a mess. But the experience prompts Bruce to recall his own youth and begin a detailed recollection of just a few years in his early teens.

It is only late in the story that we realise how these events at the outset triggered Bruce Pike's memories. It is only then that we realise that Bruce's exploits in his youth, like those of his associates, are an extended metaphor relating to a constant need to push life to its limits, perhaps in order to feel more alive by flirting with death.

The young Bruce Pike is nicknamed Pikelet. He doesn't seem to be particularly strong or macho. He lives in a small place in Australia close to the sea. He becomes friendly with Ivan Loon, aptly known as Loonie, and together they develop an interest in surfing, an interest that becomes an obsession. The waves always need to e bigger, the challenge more threatening, the risk closer to the impossible. Why would we bother if it were otherwise?

Loonie and Pikelet become ever more ambitious. They deliberately court danger in the form of breakers, reefs and sharks. There's even a looming possibility of confrontation with lads from the next town. They meet Sando and Eva, an Australian bloke and an American woman with a limp. The three males soon bond and take to the water together. The apparently surly Eva stays at home. The lads meanwhile surf wherever and whenever they can. Bruce's descriptions of their experience are electrifying, exciting and truly beautiful. The language is poetic, evocative of the exhilaration of surf.

But life moves on. Just as waves break unpredictably, life can split apart and thus surprise. Pikelet's apparently indestructible friendship with Loonie withers and breaks. There is betrayal and exclusion in the air. Eva, tired of being left alone, but probably unwilling to admit it, seeks her own gratification in a way that changes the young man's life. But she is a wounded woman and, like the surfers, needs to feel the rush of risk. In some ways her life is too safe. An inheritance takes care of the finances, an injury determines her movement and thus denies her the adrenalin rush of danger she craves. So she invents an alternative route to risk, something that gives her the sharpness of breath that only true excitement, uncontrollable excitement, can generate. And Pikelet thus becomes part of Eva's version of surfing a crest. He is a participant, part of the plot, a plot that then turns on itself as the metaphor of breath re-emerges. The submerged surfer learns to hold his breath, but Eva needs no sea to surf.

The precise, detailed memories of adolescence then suddenly fade into decades lived apparently in summary. But as events merely flash past, the preceding extended memories remind us that perhaps each one of the subsequent, apparently dismissed events probably involved surfing as close to the edge as happened in adolescence. Perhaps we get used to the ride, and its risks, and that's what gives us time to catch our breath, as life's breakers cast us aside.

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