Breath (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
Although many American readers may not be familiar with the fiction of Tim Winton, he is one of Australia’s most popular writers. His novel Cloudstreet (1991) topped the list of favorite books compiled by several thousand Australian radio listeners in 2002 and also by several hundred members of the Australian Society of Authors. His novel Dirt Music (2001) was third and fourth on the two lists, respectively.
After publishing a well-received collection of short stories, The Turning (2004), Winton returns to the novel format. Breath is a traditional bildungsroman about the coming of age of a young man in a small town on the western coast of Australia in the early 1970’s. It begins with a brief account of the middle-aged protagonist Bruce Pike making an emergency call as a paramedic in an Australian city. Later, after Pike awakens from a dream of being underwater and seeing himself swimming down to rescue himself, he plays his didjeridu (an Australian wind instrument) and begins the story of his youth in Sawyer, a small mill town a few miles from the sea on the western coast of Australia.
Pike is a solitary child with parents older than those of his friends; the only thing he excels at is swimming. He is eleven when he meets Ivan Loon, nicknamed Loonie, a twelve-year-old, who tricks people into thinking he is drowning in the river by holding his breath for a long time under water. On a dare, Pike, nicknamed Pikelet (little fish), proves he can hold his breath for a long time, also. Thus begins the central metaphor that gives the book its title and unifies it thematically.
Loonie is an urchin, usually on his own, and given to taking chances, something that the more timid Pikelet yearns to emulate. The two boys fulfill their desire for risk one day when they bicycle to the ocean and watch a group of surfers. Although Pike says he could not have expressed it when he was a boy, he realizes now that what so fascinated him about surfing was seeing men do something beautiful, something pointless and elegant, that he had not seen before in the ordinary men, such as his father, in his hometown. The two boys become obsessed with surfing, chopping firewood to earn enough money to buy used surfboards and learning the sport by watching a group of surfers. They are just on the cusp of adolescence when they meet Billy Sanderson, nicknamed Sando, a surf bum who lets them leave their boards at his house on the beach.
Winton’s most explicit statement of the novel’s unifying theme occurs when he shifts narrative perspective back to the adult Pike blowing on his didji, saying he has been thinking about the enigma of respiration as long as he can remember. He notes how funny it is that you never really think much about breathing, until it is all you ever think about. He remembers the birth of his two daughters and the moment after they are suctioned and draw their first breaths. He thinks about the rude shock of respiration, which in a moment or two becomes automatic, that is, until your first asthma attack or the first time you encounter a stranger trying to draw breath; then you can no longer take breathing for granted. When the novel shifts back to the primary time frame of Pike’s adolescence, he and Loonie practice holding their breath until they are so good at it that Pike thinks this is what sets them apart from everyone else.
Pike’s relationship with Loonie is a combination of admiration and fear. Whereas Loonie hurls himself at the world like a madman, Pikelet cautiously holds back; Loonie fascinates Pikelet, but also exhausts him, making him glad sometimes to get back to the routine of school after their weekend trips to the beach, admitting that he likes the privacy of books. At the beginning of summer vacation, the two boys discover a box of magazines under Sando’s house filled with pictures and stories about his legendary surfing competitions. During the summer, Sando teaches them about surfing and shows them the riskiest places to surf, encouraging them to even more hero-worship, while Eva, Sando’s young American wife, seems only to tolerate them and scorn their idolatry of her husband.
Related to the theme of breath in the book is the theme of taking risks, facing danger, something...
(The entire section is 1753 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2009)
The Economist 387 (April 26, 2008): 108.
Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 7 (April 1, 2008): 329.
Library Journal 133, no. 7 (April 15, 2008): 78-79.
Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2008, p. R2.
The New York Review of Books 55, no. 13 (August 14, 2008): 28-29.
The New York Times Book Review, June 8, 2008, p. 17.
The New Yorker 84, no. 20 (July 7, 2008): 95.
Outside 33, no. 7 (July, 2008): 34.
Publishers Weekly 244, no. 14 (April 7, 2008): 40.
The Spectator 307 (May 3, 2008): 36-37.