Let it be said that I already come to Breath a Tim Winton fan and that, if you haven't read Cloudstreet, I believe you are cheating yourself of one of the more beautiful, epic novels written in English. Since reading it, I have stuck by Winton, reading everything he has written, and some of lives he introduces us to in those books have been bleak. Breath is gorgeous. I read it in two sittings, starting at around 6 yesterday evening and finishing it by midnight. It is written is easy, pitch-perfect, colloquial prose, but that doesn't mean the writing is not a pleasure:
I will always remember my first wave that morning. The smells of paraffin wax and brine and peppy scrub. The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward and I sprang to my feet, skating with the wind of momentum in my ears. I leant across the wall of upstanding water and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary watching figure on the beach and the flash of Loonie's smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated. And though I've lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.
As you can probably tell from this excerpt, the narrator of Breath is a surfer but before you decide that, in that case, this novel is not for you, surfing is not the subject of the novel. The thrill of taking a risk. Challenging our human limits, our ordinariness. What one should feel like when life is good - is well lived. That is the well-worn territory of this coming of age novel. The narrator, as the excerpt above reveals, is a man already well into life. But some people take a while to grow into themselves, or at least to be able to look back with some insight.
More than once since then I've wondered whether the life-threatening high jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to in the years of my adolescence were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath. It's easy for an old man to look back and see the obvious, how wasted youth and health and safety are on the young who spurn such things, to be dismayed by the risks you took, but as youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your own body as exercising it on others.
I found poetry in the ways Winton uses the theme of breath in this novel. It's an important motif beginning on page four and he finds myriad ways to keep coming back to it rhythmically, relentlessly. While its connection with both the theme of the story and the main activity of its characters is obvious, the way its used never is, it is elemental yet it can also be surprising.
Winton's writing can make the most overworked of themes - adolescent angst - live again. One of the reasons I keep coming back to him as a writer, even when I quake in my boots after reading some scenes of abuse in his short stories that I have never gotten out of my mind, is because his musicianship with my language can make me hear and see things as if for the first time. For example, the adolescent narrator of Breath is enrolled in a new school by his parents so that he might elude the influence of Loonie, whose need for a thrill borders on the pathological. As a result he is subjected to bus rides - a potentially banal source of angst - which, in Winton's hands, becomes a sensoral poem:
Still, such tenderness condemned me to years of bussing, and the bus ride is my chief memory of high school - the smells of vinyl and diesel and toothpaste, corrugated-iron shelters out by the highway, rain-soaked farmkids, the funk of wet wool and greasy scalps, the staccato rattle of the perspex emergency window, the silent feuds and the low-gear labouring behind pig trucks, the spidery handwriting of homework done in your lap and the heartbreaking winter dusk that greeted you as the bus rolled back across the bridge into Sawyer. The bus dropped me into a kind of limbo...
Winton embodies one of the chief themes of this beautiful book, which is a man whose daily exercise in life is to make something of beauty:
I couldn't have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.
In the context of many a rural community, like Sawyer in this novel, men doing anything remotely elegant with aesthetic rather than practical considerations is, in the best case, frowned upon and can be the source of endless judgement and even attack. Surfing, in this novel, is just about as useless as it gets - but what draws the young man to the water, to the ever-increasing risk of physical harm, and what draws his older self to reflect on the activities of his formative years is:
...the feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.This novel let me see the flame inside someone I could have assumed rather dull and ordinary - it even does it in a way that could have ended up being dull and ordinary - an old man looks back on his reckless youth, yawn. But it reveals someone whose impulse was to resist being ordinary, and to see how that drove this man once - like a surge in the ocean that turns into a wave. Some waves swell to perfection and one can ride them into shore in a single act of grace. Others you begin riding in and then you can no longer see that they will crash down upon you. Then the only thing you can do is hold your breath and wait out the violence of the tide. It is revealing what is elemental and alive in the life of this narrator, but not at first apparent on the surface, that made this novel such a beautiful one. The form of this book also takes on the inevitability of a tidal surge - the force is monumental but its events can be as quiet and pretty as they can be violent. This book resists the ordinary, and in so doing, rises to among the top reads I've had yet this year.