Two daredevil surfers in 1970s Australia philosophize in Tim Winton's Breath
Why would you risk your life for a five- or 10-second rush of exhilaration? Australian author Tim Winton posits this question in Breath, his novel about surfing and lost youth in 1970s Western Australia.
Twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Winton takes us on a first-person reflection on the formative years of surf buddies Pikelet and Loonie, two teens fighting the monotony of small-town life in their quest to dance on water. "In Sawyer, a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers, men did solid, practical things, mostly with their hands. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant," writes Winton.
Guided by their surf guru, Sando, an older, ex-professional surfer, the boys develop a taste for danger as they constantly test the limits of their courage, seeking out greater waves in perilous waters. Their shared obsession for surfing leads them to great heights and terrible lows as they look for ways to feel alive, "rebelling against the monotony of drawing breath." The enigma of respiration is what seizes the imagination of these young boys, and what gives the book its title.
In this beautifully written coming of age story, Winton uses the Australian surfer jargon of the 1970s in a subtle, expository way. Like his characters themselves, Winton isn’t interested in being chic. He describes in lyrical detail how surfing resonates in the limbs. Glory is to be found within. Their semi-secret maverick status is driven by the thrill of courting death, and the exhilaration of overcoming fear. Hesitation is failure. Triumph hinges on bravery. It is the outlaw feeling of doing something no one else can do that first appeals to the boys, something graceful. Is it worth it? wonders Pikelet, as things become complicated among the surfing trio’s dynamic. Success, measured in the mere seconds of upright travel on an ugly, gnarly bombora, is fleeting, as are the best years of one’s life, he soon discovers.
Addicted to danger, all the characters in the book look for pulse-raising challenges as they resist the greatest fear of all – being ordinary.