I tried to read Cloudstreet a few years ago. It didn’t end well – for me, or for Tim Winton, who I vowed to never read again. But then Breath won the Miles Franklin Award on Thursday, and people had been raving about it for the last year. So I finally caved in and bought it. Last copy at work, oh yeah. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, general public…
When Bruce Pike, a paramedic, is called out to a house where a young boy has hanged himself, the incident reminds him of his own experiences as a boy. And so the story moves to the incident, when Bruce was Pikelet, a young boy living in a tiny coastal town, infatuated with surfing. His teacher, Sando, urges him to surf higher and higher waves, and his friend, Loonie, taunts him at his inability to reach the heights he does. But as time passes, the relationships begin to fracture, and nothing remains the same.
Well, don’t I feel like an idiot right now. I’ve spent so long hating Winton that I couldn’t quite believe how brilliant this novel truly is. Every now and then, as you’re reading, you kind of sit back and just go, ‘Wow’. This is a novel by a man at the height of his powers, and they’re pretty impressive. This is a sombre novel, but instead of being weighed down by a constant sense of doom (as could easily have happened when writing a novel about self-harm and our inability to become better people), Breath seems to flow so easily and freely. Winton is a master of the English language, but more than that, I admire him because he is a master of the Australian language. No other writer I can think of can so beautifully write English so uniquely Australian. And it’s not that he draws attention to this fact – it’s just that no one else, not an American, not a Brit, not an Indian – could possibly hope to write such unique Australian writing. Hell, few other Australian novelists can do it. So it’s refreshing to see that someone can.
Other than the language, there’s a lot else in this novel that’s good. I liked Pikelet – he’s very much an everyman, someone who feels like he doesn’t belong where he is, and yet when he tries to do something extraordinary, he’s so scared, he pikes. No pun intended. His journey through the novel is something to which I think we can all relate. Similarly, we’ve all had a friend like Loonie – that one who you become friends with out of circumstance more than anything, and yet you’re never sure what the relationship exactly entails, particularly because your friend is a little dangerous. I think it would have been too easy to write this novel from Loonie’s point of view – the usual misunderstood child with no parents forced to rebel. But focusing on Pikelet makes it all the more interesting because, in comparison, he’s quite well off. Emotionally, that is. The boys’ relationship with Sando, then, is perfectly justified. Here’s a man, just old enough to be respected, but still young enough to be cool, who knows about a secret world of which you want to be a part. Perfect.
Having this triumvirate of characters as the focus tends to make this a very male novel, but that doesn’t mean the female characters are any less engaging. Eva, Sando’s wife, is broken, damaged and bitter, and thoroughly moody and unlikeable. But perhaps this is simply how Bruce the teenage boy remembers her – after all, we all think women are mysterious and confusing at that age (and still do). All this makes her wanting to sleep with Pikelet later more than confusing for him, but she is central to the plot and themes of the novel. When her past is slowly revealed, everything falls into place, and it all makes perfect sense.
I could end this review without mentioning the sea, but it would’t be proper to do so. Surfing is integral to the plot, indeed, the inner workings, of Breath. I couldn’t care less about surfing, but I love Winton writing about it and the sea. There’s such passion for it, so much respect and understanding, and it’s all done so beautifully, I love that it’s there.
I was disappointed when The Slap didn’t win the Miles Franklin Award this year. Before reading Breath, it certainly would have received my vote. Afterwards, I’m not so sure. I hate to be proved wrong, but here is proof that Tim Winton truly is one of our great novelists. This book is not epic, it’s not complex, it’s not long, but it is brilliant. The characters and place are so perfectly evoked, right from the beginning, you know you’re in the hands of a master who has written a novel that is mature, sombre, and a little bit fantastic.