Breath: a novel by Tim Winton
The novels of Tim Winton are unusual: they cross the border between popular and literary fiction. Winton has a large readership, both nationally and internationally, in part due to his work winning literary prizes and the attention (and market) they generate. Breath, for example, won the Miles Franklin Award in 2009, but Winton has also won this leading Australian prize for Shallows (1984), Cloudstreet (1992) and Dirt music (2002).
Winton’s children’s books are also greatly enjoyed, and include Lockie Leonard, human torpedo (1990), The bugalugs bum thief (1991), Lockie Leonard, scumbuster (1993) and Lockie Leonard, legend (1997).
Many readers say they enjoy his realistic and vernacular writing about Australia and Australians. But critics also point to another dimension to Winton’s work, one that might arguably be seen in contradiction to this vernacular, accessible Aussie writer. For example, critic Andrew Riemer writes:
On the surface, Breath seems no more than an affectingly nostalgic rites-of-passage tale set three or four decades ago in Winton’s mythic landscape, the countryside around Angelus, a maritime town in the south of Western Australia … a marvelously evocative remembrance of things past, of a now vanished small-town Australia experiencing the first inroads of people like Sando and Eva: drop-outs, hippies, alternative-lifestyle gurus who surf, do drugs and play didgeridoos… [but] Breath discloses itself as a grand metaphysical fable but one so tactful and restrained that it would be easy to miss its boldness and complexity…The novel’s complexity is poetic, psychological and ethical. (Riemer 2008)
If you haven’t already read the novel, you should do so now.
You might also consider the following questions to stimulate your reading, and our online discussion this week.
• How would you describe Winton’s writing style? Do you like the so-called vernacular, ‘Australian’ dialogue and charactersations?
• Do you agree with Riemer’s descriptions of Breath ‘as a grand metaphysical fable’? What would you see as the ‘fabulous’ or mythic elements of the novel? How do see the relationship between fable and realism in the novel?
• How does the manipulation of time in the narrative work? What effects are achieved in moving from the present, into a story of childhood set in the past?
Surfing and an ‘Australian’ boyhood
One of the central features of this novel is its setting: a small country town, the beach and the surf. Pikelet and Loonie meet each other in water, and their teenage years are spent learning to surf, under the tutelage and glamour of surfing champ Sando.
• Does Breath ring true to you as a realistic representation of an Australian landscape? Of a boyhood by the beach?
• What kinds of characterisation does Winton create in Breath? Realistic? Psychological? Mythic? Nostalgic?
• How are the sensuous details of the landscape and the ocean created by Winton?
• What kind of relationship do you see developing between the boys and Sando?
• How does Winton create the growing differences between the boys?
• Is there anything specifically ‘Australian’ about the childhoods created by Winton?
The novel is intrigued with the human capacity to take risks, to push yourself beyond the limits of safety and the known. Surfing of course is central to the challenges the boys take on. They are ‘in love’ with Sando’s prowess in surfing, but they are also intrigued by the promise of his ‘eternally young’ lifestyle.
Read pages 113 to 118 (Penguin edition of Breath):
• How does this passage create the relationship between Pikelet and Sando?
• How does Winton create the anxiety and excitement of surfing here?
• What do you make of this risk-taking behaviour? Is it brave or foolish? Does the novel offer us a moral account of such risk-taking?
• How is the female character of Eva created? How is she represented in this ‘risk-taking economy’?
• The sexuality between Pikelet and Eva is also risk-taking, both morally and physically. How does this relationship, and its aftermath, effect Pikelet? Does the novel take a moral or ethical position on this relationship?
• Does the novel offer us any insights into why human beings take such risks?
Breath: a demythologising text?
Finally, how do you read the novel’s moods, and its overarching narrative trajectory? Does Breath have the effect of demythologising our iconic stories of childhood and the beach? Many readers express a sense of the novel’s dark and even tragic mood, its inevitable sense of loss and failure: Sando cannot stay young, and world champion, forever; Pikelet and Loonie do not remain friends; and Loonie is finally lost to his childhood of beach and surf. Eva too pays a heavy penalty for her risk-taking.
And of course the older Pikelet, the narrator of the story, is a damaged man, divorced, irritable, someone who has chosen to work as a paramedic, and to encounter the carnage and grief of human life. He is ‘nearly fifty years old..[with] arthritis and a dud shoulder.’ (p. 264). He has a couple of daughters who stay with him ‘now and then.’ (p. 265). And everything, including the township and its people, are subject to change and dissolution. This is one account of the mood of the novel: ‘too much damage, too much shame.’ (p. 265).
But is there also something more uplifting, hopeful, even ecstatic, that we glimpse in this novel? There are moments of sheer amazement and joy in the natural world, and in the friendships forged between the characters, even if such friendships are ephemeral. In our final glimpse of Pikelet, now aged fifty, he is carrying his board – ‘an old ten-footer, a real clunker from the sixties, like something Gidget would ride’ (p. 264) – down to the Point again. He is full of memories and regrets, but he comes back to the town, and down to the surf, because out there ‘I don’t have to be cautious and I’m never ashamed. Out there I’m free.’ (p. 265). He has been, after all, our narrator, the ‘I’ around which the story revolves.
We care about this character, don’t we? He has made mistakes. He is not a hero, but an ordinary man who has survived; and he wants to show his daughters ‘…that their father is a man who dances – who saves lives and carries the wounded, yes, but who also does something completely pointless and beautiful…’ (p. 265).
Does it almost persuade you to take up surfing?
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