Breath by Tim Winton

25/05/08, Scotland on Sunday

Who would have thought that a novel about an extreme sport, surfing the wild swells and sets off the south-western coast of Australia, to be really about nothing less than the infirm glory of the human condition and the damage left in the wake of tasting the limits set for our human frame? Tim Winton’s Breath is as much a novel about surfing as The Old Man and the Sea is about fishing and Moby Dick about whale-hunting. Narrated retrospectively by its protagonist, Bruce Pike, when he is in his fifties, it is set in the tiny sawmilling town of Sawyer, and tells the story of the friendship between eleven-year-old Bruce (aka Pikelet) and the slightly older Loonie, a wildly reckless and daring boy. They are both bound together by an almost physical obsession with surfing and when Sando, an older pro with an aura of mystique and coolness about him, takes them under his wing, the obsession comes closer to something more elemental, more dangerous.

Under Sando’s tutelage Pikelet surfs the dangerous bombora, Old Smoky, but it is left to Loonie and Sando to do the lethal Nautilus as Pikelet chickens out. The skittering dynamics within the trio, already unstable, changes irrevocably after this and especially when the fourth actor in the drama, Sando’s wife, Eva, an edgy, unhappy woman, enters the picture.  All four are after the extraordinary, a brush with something beyond the boundaries of the human. All four have had their moments with the electricity of that encounter and any other novelist would have left it at that but Winton is nothing if not a great writer so his book is also an exquisitely calibrated account of the different costs paid for momentarily vaulting over and beyond the human.

Barely two hundred pages long, it has the sensibility and reach of an epic in its positioning of man within and against Nature; indeed, it can be seen as Winton’s pared-down, more personal and intimate answer to the other great Australian epic, Patrick White’s The Tree of Man. A lean, chiselled, perfect book, it is like a blade of light. It is a measure of Winton’s absolute mastery of his prose that he can establish an asymmetric erotic hold between two of his characters in just over two pages; that’s all it takes him to get to the seething core of a damaged, murky compulsion. Look carefully and you’ll see that the novel has the parsimonious plenitude of poetry in every line. Contrary to what most commentators have said, Breath is not a novel about the addictive nature of adrenaline but an exploration of whether one can find one’s depth once the entire ocean of experience has been redefined.