breathBreath, Tim Winton, Penguin, 9780143009580 (Aus, US)

Breath is my first Tim Winton. Yes, I know. He’s just not someone I had gotten to yet. And yes, I will read Cloudstreet, eventually. Last week, Breath was awarded our nation’s most prestigious literary prize – the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is for books that in some way present aspects of Australian life. Winton gave an amazing speech, which you can view here, championing the Territorial Copyright laws which are currently under threat by the Productivity Commission. If you’re interested in protecting Australian writers, publishers, culture and ideas, you should really have a listen, and read more about the whole debacle. (We have reported on it extensively in the Weekly Book Newsletter – most of these articles are publicly available).

I had been rooting for The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, a bold book that I love and champion. Now I have finished Breath – a haunting and beautiful, well-rounded, atmospheric coming-of-age novel. I still prefer The Slap, as it challenged me more, made me feel impassioned and awake as a reader and person, but Breath is a truly enjoyable novel. I was enthralled by the world Winton paints – the adolescent curiosities, admirations, desires; the frightening and spellbinding ocean and the danger and peace of surfing, diving, living for passion.

I felt melancholy, much of the time, reading it – perhaps even from knowing (due to the structure) that the character was older and all the events are expressed as loss, as past, memory, history. I experienced nostalgia for a time I wasn’t born in, but this is not uncommon for me. I have written about the 70s, and I have written about the coast (being a Coffs Harbour girl). I feel some kind of affinity for a time that was less rule-bound and determined that my own generation’s, and this is something that Winton explores subtly in the book. Breath is ‘about’ many things: how people, or one person, can shape you and be the catalyst for both the best and worst, the strongest, memories of your life; and how your own choices in regards to this person/people play into those memories. There is the overarching theme, of course, of holding one’s breath – seeking that moment on the edge (between life and death, between feeling and unfeeling, pain and numbness) and the endorphins and adrenaline that come from chasing that moment (in all its forms – sport, lust, love, danger) then coping with the loss of that. Coping with being thrust into ordinariness after knowing ‘that moment’, and what that moment has to do with heroism and confidence; plus the choices made when it turns to pure danger, and when loss becomes inevitable.

Winton rolls us up in the waves, in Bruce Pike’s experiences and outlook, his insularity, and we do hold our breath with him at times. I didn’t think the overall structure was completely successful, as the beginning made me think we’d get back to Pike’s present sooner than we do. But this is a minor qualm. The calmness of the ending, the realism and matter-of-factness of Pike’s experience and story means that elements of the book – the melancholy, the inevitability, the continued interior circling over the desires of the past – still resonate.

So, I enjoyed Breath, a quite simple, layered story, and I will remember it. Congratulations to Tim Winton on his fourth Miles Franklin win! Now, please do tell me your thoughts…