05 January, 2009

'Breath' - Tim Winton

Can breathing be more than a requirement for life and become an addiction? In Breath, Tim Winton plays on our attachment to that fundamental action to explore his characters’ addictions to the extreme and the dangerous.

Breath begins with Pikelet, its narrator, as a middle-aged man, witnessing a scene that takes him back to his adolescent days of surfing and cheating dangerous fate with his mate Loonie. He reflects on those earlier days of discovery, impetuosity and anxiety for the majority of the novel, bringing the audience slowly to the person he is as an adult. Winton, however, doesn’t allow himself to take the easiest ‘V’ route of literary recall: starting at the end, jumping in a straight line to the beginning then traversing directly back to that starting point. He mixes tenses and mentions things subtly out of sequence to remind the reader that they are within a future reflective. To take the simpler path would render the drama and insanity of Pikelet’s youth far less affecting.

The first passage of the novel punches immediately with the best of Winton’s style: sparse and rough, yet beautiful; withdrawn but honest. At times Winton can become too weird, obtuse (think Cloudstreet) or irresolute (think The Riders) to sustain his audience (not that his book sales reflect that!). Breath features neither aspect of his writing: it is intensely engaging throughout its length (at just over 200 pages, shorter than usual for Winton), and as surely as a wave will break on the shore it comes to an end.

The bulk of the book is set in the mill town of Sawyer. Pikelet’s father is scared of the open ocean, but through Pikelet and Loonie’s friendship with the enigmatic Sando, they not only start surfing but also push themselves to attempt and conquer increasingly dangerous breaks. The majority of descriptive text in the book is reverent of the surf and the coast: on the estuary as a child Pikelet watches “the disembodied shadows of pelicans rushing over the mottled flats”; watching a young surfer take her first wave, the narrator opines that “every time I see a kid pop to her feet, all milk-teeth and shining skin, I’m there;...some spark of early promise returns to me like a moment of grace”.

Despite the daring of Pikelet’s adventures, and the seriousness of his thoughts, he is still a child, as Winton takes care on occasion to remind us: a dead roo prompts him to muse, “I wondered if roos had thoughts”. While his lungs and bravado get stronger, he finds himself eventually in a situation defined by suffocation. Perhaps we are all suffocated – denied free and easy breathing – in some way, whether by something we have sought out (for example Pikelet’s relationship with the surf and danger) or something foisted upon us (such as Pikelet’s parents’ concern for him); whether through a chemical addiction or the undeniable need for something far more visceral.

Pikelet is knocked over by countless ocean waves, but always resurfaces. Eventually, however, he reaches a different outcome in his own life, as he realises “some mighty turbulence had hold of me, and nothing...would ever rescue me”. Pikelet has toyed with breath too often to be able to settle to a steady rhythm of respiration and life. Winton, by contrast, maintains a stunning level of control throughout to bring us an exemplary and undoubtedly Australian novel.

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