Breath is my favourite book about big wave surfing. Despite it being a story that follows two teenagers as they engage in macho pursuits, it is strikingly romantic. I mean romantic in the classic sense of the word – steeped in sublime nature, bringing allure to the tragic dilemma of beauty and destruction. If you’ve ever struggled to find a worthy piece of fiction set on the coast and in the waves, then it’s well worth a trip into Winton town.
Before we get further into Breath itself, it’s worth getting a little bit of context about the author, Tim Winton. He is an inducted Australian living national treasure, has won just about every literary award the country can bestow (including the prestigious Miles-Franklin award a record four times), and to this day is a mad keen surfer. If you’ve ever asked yourself “why hasn’t there been a good novel about surfing before?” it’s probably because most are written by either good writers who don’t actually surf, or poor writers who do. Winton is the perfect-storm of an acclaimed storyteller at the height of his powers, who is obsessed with sliding along waves on sticks made of fibreglass and foam. The result is a book that is both unique and authentic at the same time.
The story of Breath is set in the fictional Australian coastal town of Sawyer. Told as a flashback recollection by the narrator Bruce ‘Pikelet’ Pike, it traces the exploits of Bruce and his best friend ‘Loony’ as they grow into manhood, pushing the limits of what they’re willing to do in the water. The young boys both fall under the mentorship of an enigmatic guru called Sando, who takes them to new heights in their dances with death.
The relationship between the three turns sour when Sando starts to prefer the company of Loony over Pikelet. The two disappear to Indonesia, leaving Pikelet alone to the devices of Sando’s American wife Eva. I won’t go further into spoiler territory here, but there are some brilliant sequences about brushes with sharks, charging mythic outer reefs and moist sex with a pregnant woman. All of it is written in a hauntingly natural way, which could easily be mistaken for a nostalgic, yet true-to-life biography. It finishes back in present day, with Bruce going about his job as a paramedic. We get the sense that he has never fully recovered from his experiences and probably never will. His past has defined him in a way that he is painfully aware.
At its heart, Breath is a coming-of-age story about finding meaning in your life by facing death. It’s about taking risks, pushing the limits and trying to find the edge - reaping both the reward and the scars. It is about finding ecstasy by getting close to destruction. And it’s about the emotional toll living like this can take long term, and the fact that if you take this path you can never, ever go back. The extreme toothpaste will not squeeze back in the tube.
Breath is also about surfing and how it's a pursuit not concerned with leaving a lasting legacy. Surfing not like working or building towards something that culminates in a concrete achievement of sorts. The joy of surfing is in the act itself, which is a pretty wild metaphor for life if you think about it. There’s something either very depressing, or very uplifting about that thought. I’m still not sure which, and I think it changes depending what kind of mood I’m in.
If you’re looking for an adventure thriller, that is driven by plot and big action sequences then you’ll probably be sorely disappointed with Breath. It’s not a Point Break-esque tale of adrenaline-fuelled daring do. But, if you want a story that packs an emotional punch, feels eerily like real life and doesn’t offer any neat tie offs at the end, then you’ll love it. It doesn’t really matter if you surf or not, Breath will help you understand the importance of holding on to the fleeting nature of life, like holding onto the throat of a gasping lover. It is by no means a perfect book, but that is part of its charm. It’s what makes it real and elegant and devastating.
Australian actor Simon Brown (The Mentalist) is also adapting Breath for the screen. It’s currently being shot in the West Australian coastal town of Denmark, which is fitting since a few of the waves in the book are based on secret spots in the area. It will be interesting to see how the movie turns out, since the book goes deep into both theme and the characters’ psyches. That is often really hard to play out on film, unless the acting is absolutely spot on. They may lose some context, but no doubt there will be some pretty amazing surf porn woven in to the narrative.
If you do enjoy Breath, you’ll probably also like the surf road-trip classic The Search For Captain Zero. It’s a bit more of a gonzo-style novel, but there are similar themes and it’s written very well. If Tim Winton does capture your imagination, then his short story collections The Turning and Minimum of Two have a similar feel to Breath. While totally different, Cloud Street is seen as his masterpiece. It tops the list of favourite Australian novels year after year after year.
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