Picador, 2009218 pp.
Tim Winton has long been one of my favorite authors, and he hasn't let me down yet. His novel Breath won the 2009 Miles Franklin award, beating out its competition: Wanting by Richard Flanagan, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (both of which I've read) Ice by Louis Nowra (which I own but haven't yet read), and The Pages by Murray Bail. In Breath he explores a number of topics, none the least of which is the choice between whether it is better to live an "ordinary" life or to walk on the wild side and live on the edge of danger, both of which may have repercussions.
As the novel opens, a paramedic and his partner are called out to a house only to find that a teenager has hanged himself. The partner thinks it's suicide, but the paramedic knows from things left behind in the boy's room that this is much more than meets the eye. There's the smell of pot hanging in the air; the faded bruises on the boy's neck are a background to fresh ligature marks. The paramedic has seen all of this before, earlier in his own life.
Thus begins Bruce Pike's narrative of his teen years in Sawyer, a small mill town in Western Australia, a place where "people seemed settled -- rusted on, in fact. They liked to be ordinary. They were uncomfortable with ambition and avoided any kind of unpredictability or risk". Nicknamed Pikelet, he was the only child of two "ordinary" parents with "codgers' interests," emigrants from England who are, like the town he lives in, "fixed and drab." Bruce meets Ivan Loon (Loonie), son of the local pub owner, who is more outgoing and has more of a risk-taking type of personality, even though there is a deeper sense of vulnerability somewhere inside him. From the moment they met, they became both friends and rivals, diving down into the river holding their respective breaths, each trying to outdo the other. From that day on, says Bruce, "it was the beginning of something."
Things begin to ratchet into higher gear when the two boys eventually cross paths with Bill Sanderson (Sando), an internationally-known champion surfer in his mid-thirties and Eva, Sando's wife. Sando is an odd character -- an aging hippie who smokes dope, reads Castaneda and does Zen meditation, yet has a hard time being comfortable with simply sitting still. As their hero worship grows for Sando, he takes them out on surfing excursions that challenge them to and sometimes beyond their limits, each expedition more difficult and dangerous than the last. They become addicted to and intoxicated with the thrill and the danger, and Bruce notes at one point that "years before people started speaking about extreme sports, we spurned the word extreme as unworthy." As a result of being caught up in the adrenaline rush of hanging with Sando, he begins to pull further away from his ordinary life, but eventually finds himself having to come to terms with the consequences of this new lifestyle, as does Loonie. Bruce realizes that in surfing, men do something "beautiful," and that in fooling with death, there is an "outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do." But therein lies the dilemma: caught between the beauty of it all and the destructive forces that can bear down and take them out in an instant, each boy ends up having to ultimately make choices for himself that will have some major consequences, some of which are devastating.
Bruce's narrative asks some tough questions. For example, how far might someone be willing to go to give meaning to his or her life? At what point do you need to put the brakes on and impose some kind of limits? What has to happen before you can stop and take a breath now and then instead of constantly being at the point where you are having to gasp for air?
Breath is a good read, written in a simple style that manages to also be very descriptive without going into too much unnecessary detail. Bruce's recollections are very controlled, but Winton's characters deliver an eloquent range of emotions that for the most part make them seem real and alive. And you don't have to be a surfer or even like surfing to become caught up in the scenes in the ocean. These are written so vividly that you'll find yourself picturing the scenes in your head, and like Bruce and Loonie, find yourself caught between the beauty of feeling so alive and the hidden dangers of nature and the constant craving rush junkies need for bigger and better thrills during the lulls.
Highly recommended, especially for people who like quality fiction, and those who enjoy fiction from Australia.
fiction from Australia