Feature image from WITZIG
BREATH by Tim Winton
The first time I picked up a Tim Winton novel I was way too young. Thinking it was a sign of my advanced maturity, I begun reading the one about the lobsters and the watermelon farmer when I was in High School. The complexity and subtle adult grieving for a life gone wrong, couldn’t hold my attention. I discarded the novel early on telling anyone who would listen that I thought it was crap.
Now looking back on it, I’m sure it wasn’t the books fault.
The second time I tried to read a TIM WINTON novel was in the early days of my husband and I dating. We were in the habit of finding a book and reading it our aloud together. We got through the first page of that one where the young boy tries to get out of ‘town’ and leave his friends behind, before we realised it was not the right tone for our fresh energetic kind of romantic nights.
In saying that I tried to read Winton twice and failed is no reflection on his writing, merely a comment on the understanding of Winton required to make the right choice at the right time.
This is the third time I tried to read a Tim Winton novel and read to the end I did. I was ready to read Breath and it came into my life at exactly the right time.
Books, I am coming to understand are all about timing. You have to find the right book at the right time in your life for it to leave that deep impression on you.
I read Breath while living in a coastal town and I found myself working in a cafe over looking the ocean, where I spent most of the day watching the swell. At the time callouts looking for boys, 14 to 16 years old to audition for Breath, the film. No acting experience required.
The story of Breath is told retrospectively, from a grown up Pikelet who reflects back on an incredibly poignant time in his adolescent years and how those events shaped the rest of his life. Pikelet noticed how those around him see him and where that impression my have come from.
We are taken back to the time when Pikelet was in school, making friends with the young challenge and mischief motivated Loonie. The boys head to ocean together on their bikes and navigate together the community, language and social norms of the surfing community and the Western Australian surf.
But that is a lazy summary. To say Breath is about young boys learning to surf is not enough.
As I read about Pikelet being initiated into the very serious and powerful surfing culture of the 1970’s, I too was learning a thing or two about life near the waves. I was being instructed by grey gromets on the sand of the protocols involved in posting images of perfect breaks on social media. ‘You don’t need to advertise a good swell love, the people with enough skill to ride these waves, will have the know how to figure out the bar is up.’
Pikelet and Loonie form a tentative relationship with an older, alternative surfer named Sando, who lives near the break. The novel explores the boys’ youthful urge to seek out the farthest limits of courage, endurance and sanity in an attempt to escape the ordinariness of their lives. What begins as an arrangement for the boys to store their boards under Sando’s house, develops into an adrenaline fuels apprenticeship on surfing, the ocean, life and limits.
I wont tell you what happens in the second half of the novel, but I will say, to quote a literary genius is this. ‘The book is about holding your breath – holding your breath while surfing, holding your breath at the bottom of a river, holding your breath when you free dive, holding your breath when you snore and holding your breath doing other private things when your alone too.’
About 3/4 of the way through the book the whole thing took a turn and I found myself suddenly detached from all the characters involved. As the sex and drugs and danger increased I was out. The only foreshadowing of the gloom that was about to come was the weary nature of those around me who had already read it. The way they turned their heads to ask if I was liking it… so far.
The further I got into the novel, the less I wanted to read it in public.
I slowly found myself disliking the main character. I had been able to relate to him for so much of the story, the small town growing up, the bus trip to school, the car accidents on the highway, the need to not be limited by other people’s choices, all of that made so much sense to me. Then he started to make choices that I not only didn’t agree with, but did not want to read about.
I’m so glad I read this novel. It really was extraordinary. The writing is absolutely astonishing. I loved it. This novel permeated my whole life for the month I was reading it. I felt everything Pikelet went through and was hooked like him on watching the weather for the perfect break to surf Nautilus.
I went surfing* for the time while reading this book. Sitting exactly where the older surfers had told me to wait. Where I would not interrupt the subtle pecking order of age and skill and the guys that got there before me. A world to itself. A world Winton so perfectly describes.
BREATH was published in 2008 by Hamish Hamilton, Australia.
Breath is Winton’s 10th novel.
It is 215 pages long and while it should only be about 11 hours of reading time, this book took me a month to finish.
What I learnt from this guy –
- Everything you write can sound like poetry
- Brevity is excellent
- Your reader must be able to feel what the characters are feeling, or it just doesn’t work.
- If you need quotation marks then you just aren’t good enough (Or not as good as Winton)
Pikelet, during his High School years, finds himself as the reluctant boyfriend to Queenie Cookson a small but vital character in Breath. What is interesting about Queenie Cookson is that she comes back in a number of other Winton novels. Or to be more correct, she reappears in Breath after appearing in Winton’s previous work.
*Mostly I pulled the clinging wetsuit away from my neck and fell back into the water, amused by the new thrill of it’s buoyancy.