You could summarize Tim Winton’s Breath by saying it’s a novel about a two Australian teenagers who perfect their surfing skills under the tutelage of a reclusive mentor. Of course, that would be like saying Fight Club is a novel about young men in an illicit fighting club.
Breath may be built around surfing but the story, told from the viewpoint of Bruce “Pikelet” Pike, is about what the title says — breath, both as a life sustainer and as a metaphor. Pike’s story focuses on his relationship with his best friend, Ivan “Loonie” Loon, and how Bill “Sando” Sanderson, a star surfer, takes them under his wing and becomes their guru to the dismay and resigned acceptance of Sanderson’s wife, Eva. Breath serves to illustrate the routine of life and how the desire to challenge that routine can be, at the same time, exhilarating and dangerous to the point of deadly.
Within a moment of a newborn’s first “rude shock of respiration,” breathing becomes so routine we rarely give it another thought unless and until it is threatened. Thus, Pike wonders over the years whether the risks he took with Loonie, Sando and Eva “were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.” While an adult might deplore risks they took when young, as a youth the sense is “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.”
This portrayal of breath appears at the outset of the novel, years after the main events. It is also a focus of Pikelet and the appropriately nicknamed Loonie as they rebel against the mundaneness of their life in a small town in relatively remote western Australia. It starts with challenging each other to see who can dive and hold their breath for the longest period of time, often pushing themselves to the point of blacking out. Their feats produce exhilaration even though fraught with disaster.
Pike and Loonie also become enthralled with surfing and come to meet and know Sando, a former world class surfer who, with his wife, has become essentially a hippie recluse. Sando sees in them a capacity to take on surfing challenges above and beyond ordinary mortals. Thus, not only does he take these barely teenaged boys to surf in shark-haunted waters, he teaches them how to analyze where storms will produce the biggest swells and takes them miles into the ocean to challenge huge waves only he has surfed.
Loonie and Pikelet encounter similar as well as differing coming of age challenges, some of which they will exult over, others of which will scar them for life. Throughout the book, there is an undercurrent of walking the line between acceptable risk and disaster. Breath doesn’t try to tell us where to find the appropriate ground among routine, challenge and jeopardy. Instead, breath becomes a vehicle by which to reflect upon adventure and addiction, courage and self-destruction.
I followed the outline of my life, carefully rehearsing form without conviction, like a bishop who can’t see that his faith has become an act.
Tim Winton, Breath