Books

Breath

by Tim Winton
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

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Tim Winton is an acclaimed Australian novelist, author of Cloudstreet and the Booker Prize-shortlisted The Riders, whose newest, Breath, is about surfing, breathing, and autoerotic asphyxiation.

Written in spare, unfussy prose, the book, at 200-odd pages, is a surprisingly slow read. Winton's writing insists on a deliberate rhythm and pace, as though an even, steady breath thrums beneath the entire narrative.

The story is told as a flashback: Bruce Pike—Pikelet to his friends—is an adolescent boy in Western Australia, where there's little for a restless, rebellious kid to do besides hurl oneself into the natural world. Along with his best friend, the appropriately named Loonie, Pikelet spends his days learning to surf in the crashing Australian waves. Loonie and Pikelet are taken under the wing of the much older Sando, a self-fashioned hippie guru who tackles waves that no one else will. Sando drives the two to compete and push themselves, sometimes too hard, while his girlfriend Eva becomes a figure of fascination for the boys—she's a former stunt skier who was crippled in a bad accident and is now landbound, forced to turn to other, darker means of thrill seeking.

The constant battle against fear, a striving against physical limitations, and the elemental rush of facing down the natural world: These are the forces that shape Pikelet's adolescence, that leave an indelible mark on the man he'll become. And maybe Pikelet is weak, or maybe he's just battered by forces too big to resist, but there's a sadness that pervades the book, a sense that the man's life never quite reaches the highs attained by the thrill-seeking boy.

Winton's precise, unshowy prose is interrupted by passages of surprising beauty and power, all the more striking for their subtlety: "For all those years when Loonie and I surfed together... we never spoke about the business of beauty. We were mates but there were places our conversation simply couldn't go.... We talked about skill and courage and luck—we shared all that, and in time we surfed to fool with death—but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do."

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