This Week’s Word Is “Breath.”
Still not much non-fiction here at Word Wednesday towers, so, like last week, I thought I’d write about the fiction I’ve been reading. Breath by Tim Winton is not for parents who are faint of heart. It’s a meditation on teenage rebellion, and is fully capable of giving GeekDad readers sleepless nights.
In the latter stages, it also has strong sexual themes and probes into the devastating effects of abuse. I hesitate, therefore, to “recommend” the book, but Breath contains some lyrical writing that gently examines its difficult themes.
What Is Breath by Tim Winton?
I guess at its heart, it’s a coming of age story. Breath is a slender novel, coming in at under 300 pages with largeish print and plenty of page breaks. It tells the story of Bruce Pike, a teenager in small-town Australia during the late 60s. The novel opens with Bruce as an experienced hard-bitten paramedic, arriving at the scene of young teen found hanged. Suicide or something else? Bruce says something else, and begins to recount the story of his experiences, opening with how he met his crazy, daredevil friend, Loonie.
We know from the outset that SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN. Though when it does, it is perhaps not what we imagined at the start of Bruce’s story. The background of the story is surfing. Bruce and Loonie are drawn to the sea, and whilst there they meet Sando, an “aging” surfer (he’s in his mid-thirties!). At first, Sando is enigmatic and aloof but later takes the boys under his wing. But is this for their benefit or his own gratification?
Alongside this trio of surfers is Sando’s wife. Largely stuck in their ramshackle hippie-like abode, limping on a damaged knee. The story that unfolds centers around these four characters and their interactions will have deep ramifications for all of them.
Why Read Breath by Tim Winton?
I loved the first half of the book. Anybody who has read Cloudstreet or Dirt Music will know that Winton writes with a deft touch. He is very good at distilling the essence of Aussie life, and here this carries over into the lives of his teenaged characters and to surfing itself.
The relationship between two boys in a small-town is well portrayed. Bruce and Loonie’s uneasy, almost unlikely, friendship feels very real. Also, like the boys, it is impossible not to feel the draw of the ocean. I was itching to find a surfboard and throw myself into the water, despite consequences that would almost certainly be disastrous.
From the opening, you know there is disaster in the wings, but this tale of young surfers discovering their limits is extremely engaging. Breath is a tale about limits; finding them and reconciling that yours might be different (lower?) to your peers. How do you cope with this? What will it mean for your friendship? Loonie is something all parents dread (or at least I do); a charismatic force of nature, desperate to push the boundaries and take his friends with him.
What is Sando’s role in this? We know he was once a surfing force, somewhere, somewhen. Did he fail? Why is he in this Australian backwater? He clearly exerts a force on Loonie and Bruce, but whilst it is positive in some ways, Sando is not the sort of person you want to leave your kids with. He quietly encourages the boys to test their limits, with little regard for what might happen if they overreach them.
In its latter half, the novel takes a darker turn. Again, it’s all about limits. We learn more about Sando’s wife and her injury. How she pushed her limits and how she still does. Partway through Breath, I thought to myself “This will be a terrible book if “X” happens.” Well, “X” does happen and I was unimpressed. Fortunately, Breath was my book group choice for this month, and in our discussion, one of the members came up with an angle I hadn’t considered, that made me see the book in a different light.
Whilst reading the book, I felt that the main event of the second half was gratuitous, but on reflection, whilst it didn’t sit easily with me, I have realized Winton uses the event to further examine his theme of limitations, but not only that, sets up another thread – the terrible weight carried by those abused.
As the novel closes, Bruce tells how he ended up a paramedic. A troubling story from a man who was almost broken by the events of his youth. An examination of the legacy of the abuse and a meditation on how pushing our limits can undo us in many different ways. To push our limits is human, and how we choose to do that can define us. What perhaps is more important is that we do not allow it to control us, or step so far beyond our limits we can never return. There are, it has to be said, some things I found troubling about the direction in which Winton took the narrative but overall this a compelling story.
Whilst not an easy read for multiple reasons, Breath is a captivating book that leaves readers with plenty to think about and parents, perhaps, much to fear. Raising teenagers is a troubling time. Those doing so, I wish the best of luck.
If you enjoyed this review, do check out my other Word Wednesday columns.
You can pick up a copy of Breath here, in the US and here, in the UK.