Inhale deeply : Reflections on Breath by Tim Winton

Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can… I imagine there are few children who have not engaged in some variation of that form of super hero training. I am aware that some push it to an extreme, driving for the physiological high induced by oxygen deprivation, but in my day it was an exercise in imagining oneself capable of surviving one of the daring challenges we set up for ourselves. Where I grew up that generally involved challenging one another to crawl through one of the long corrugated metal culverts under the rural road ways. I never heard of any unfortunate incidents resulting from such an activity but my overactive childhood imagination manufactured many. Either way, being able to hold one’s breath for at least 60 seconds seemed to be skill worth developing.

At this end of life I no longer maintain this practice, but despite the fact that tests have assured me that I actually have very good lung capacity, panic and anxiety attacks can leave me struggling to fell like I am getting enough air. Breath deep, stay calm, focus on your breath.

1414720The arrival at the scene of an apparent suicide is the impetus for paramedic Bruce Pike, the narrator of Tim Winton’s novel Breath, to return on the pivotal events of a summer many years earlier and the struggle to relieve himself of the baggage he believed he carried on well into adulthood. What follows is a gripping coming of age tale featuring the young Pike (or Pikelet), a slightly bookish, awkward outsider, growing up in an unremarkable mill town on the edge of western Australia. His encounter and ensuing friendship with Ivan Loon (Loonie), the restless and reckless son of the local publican, leads him away from the safe an predictable confines of life with his reserved parents and into the aura of a former champion surfer who becomes their surfing coach, hero and guru.

Under Sando’s fickle attention the boys are introduced to the thrills of confronting nature in one of her most dangerous and unpredictable forums. Even if you have never fancied that you have an interest in surfing, Winton’s spare, confident writing pulls you right into the swell, creating vivid and heart stopping scenes that leave you gasping for air. Under the equally reckless attention of the aging surfer’s bitter and damaged young wife, our narrator is left with emotional scars that are even slower to heal than any physical beating inflicted by the surf.

This is my first encounter with the work of Tim Winton, chosen at the fine recommendation of whisperinggums as a suitable (i.e. shorter) introduction to his work in advance of his visit to Wordfest next month. It will definitely not be my last. I reveled in the exotic setting, a sharp contrast to my own landlocked prairie childhood, yet I fully related to the awe with which Pikelet and Loonie held their flawed hippie heroes. As a teenager in the 1970s myself I can remember clearly how the hippie movement of the 60s still held this magical allure that had not yet faded. On an even more personal level I was moved by the sadness and regret that drives the narrative on into the complications of adulthood. Pike’s adjustment is not easy. He has a breakdown, makes a mess of his life and has to find his own way to pull it together.

This wonderful book is more than a classic Bildungsroman. Youth and adolescence are never the full picture. When has anyone truly come of age? And by what measure of ordinariness are the true heroes assessed? Ask someone trying to live well with a mental illness.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

7 thoughts on “Inhale deeply : Reflections on Breath by Tim Winton”

  1. There is a sense of tension all the way through. It didn’t end up like I expected. All the adult messiness and how long it takes for him to pull himself together is hopeful without being at all saccharine. He is still a bit screwed up by the end but he’s learning to be okay with it.

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  2. How did I miss this review when you posted it back in 2014. Maybe I was travelling. I am so so glad you loved it like I did. Clearly I don’t agree with Lisa that he’d become a victim of his own success with this book! I think this book is as good as his mid career books. It’s 8 years old now but it still so fresh in my mind.

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    1. Thanks. This book contains some of the most vivid writing I have ever read. I have several more of his books that I haven’t read yet (time, time). I actually read this one in preparation for his visit to our word festival in 2014 where he was sadly interviewed by one of the most incompetent interviewers I have ever seen. As a volunteer I was embarrassed. Tim showed great grace, the audience would probably been happy if he had stood up and wrung her neck after she asked about the time he was interviewed by Flannery O’Connor! But he was great.

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      1. Thanks RG. Completely agree re the vividness of the writing. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I’m not surprised he handled that well. He’s a very gracious person – at least that’s how he always comes across.

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