Image: Ben Meads

An underwhelming look at Australia’s world of surfing: A review of ‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

Breath follows a paramedic, Bruce ‘Pikelet’ Pike who reflects on his adolescence spent in small-town Australia. Along with his daredevil friend, Loonie, he comes under the sway of a bearded master surfer-hippie named Bill ‘Sando’ Sanderson. However, Sando has also has a wife, Eva. Initially she exists solely as a volcano of irritation, consistently erupting amidst the exploits of the trio, but the relationship between her and Bruce soon takes a turn into depths that reveal how holding one’s breath out of sheer excitement can quickly spiral into something far more sinister. The book itself is slim, easily digestible in a day or two. That is not necessarily always a detriment. Some of the best works have been short but still touched upon profound themes and had great impact – take Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. But in this case, the book largely fails to hit a stride and is over before you have a chance to get particularly invested in any of the characters.

Perhaps we ought to start with the positives. This is a story that positively smacks of authenticity. We are treated to nothing less than a superbly detailed tour of small-town Australia, with a most astute and perceptive tour guide. Winton has very wisely chosen to adhere to the sound maxim of a writer writing what he knows. The pages are littered with expressions as Australian as kangaroos (here known as ‘roos’), such as something great being called ‘the duck’s nuts’. Winton does make an attempt to go beyond the small-town backdrop and address something approaching the eternal; it is not uniformly successful though, as surfing a wave is never uniformly smooth. This leads me onto another point. Winton has said that it was surfing that unlocked the artist in him. This is evident in the book, as the novel truly seems to spring to life only when dealing with matters related to surfing and the sea. Here, he is at his best. One senses the quasi-spiritual nature of surfing, how it is truly nothing less than man’s attempt to dance upon the waves and assert our mastery of the elements – to turn the awesome forces of nature into mere amusing diversions. The lavish detail and rhetorical gloss offered in these portions are all the more striking in comparison with the mundanity of much of the rest of the prose.

If Winton has a message, it is discernible not in any particularly revealing conversations or the fate of any characters but rather must be scraped together from the musing passages tossed in throughout.

Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that a novel largely about the sea is frequently so dry. The influence of Ernest Hemingway is splashed all over the pages, most obviously in the sparse prose style. Hemingway’s approach to prose was underpinned by what he termed the iceberg theory: that much of the depth and power of a novel could be gleaned without seeing it directly, merely by offering just a mere glimpse of it. Alas, the iceberg melts in the oppressive Aussie heat to the extent it didn’t exist to begin with. Moreover, the plot seems to have no real structure; sometimes it rushes along decades in the space of a few pages and sometimes a single day’s outing is drawn out in minute detail. If Winton has a message, it is discernible not in any particularly revealing conversations or the fate of any characters but rather must be scraped together from the musing passages tossed in throughout. As the name suggests, breathing is a core motif of the book. Surfing, indeed any sort of risk-taking, is a revolt against ‘the monotony of drawing breath’. But a revolt that continues forever is mere anarchy. Something must rise up to replace it eventually. Moreover, breathing, for all its mundanity, is a process that is the very essence of life. As indeed, it must be said, is monotony itself all too often the essence of stable societies. We revere innovators, but a society purely composed of innovators would be chaos. Perhaps surfing’s true value lies in the fact that it goes beyond the blinkered scope of rational analysis. It is something to be enjoyed purely for the thrill. As Winton himself puts it, it is the opportunity to do ‘something completely pointless and beautiful, and in this at least he should need no explanation’.

Since so much of the story centres around the internal strife of the protagonist, the rest of the characters are somewhat of necessity not particularly fleshed out. Instead, simple exposition is used to pad them out beyond 2D sketches. Loonie’s descent into the plunging valleys of recklessness seems pre-ordained almost from our first description of him. Sando hardly changes. Eva is somewhat intriguing, but her entry as a more imposing figure in Bruce’s life occurs remarkably rapidly and her exit is similarly hasty.

Instead of a meandering plot and hollow characters, I felt that the entire book could quite handily have been replaced with an essay on surfing. This could still have included most of the passages that were the real delight here.



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