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Tim Winton: Breath

This is definitely one of Winton’s lesser books but it is still worth reading, particularly if you are a fan of surfing and even if you are not. Indeed with all the surfing terms and the Australian flora and fauna, this may well be the book written in English, where I had to look up most words, from bombora (also abbreviated to bommie) to karri and marri.

The story concerns Bruce Pike, known to his friends as Pikelet. We first meet him as a paramedic, answering a call for a seventeen year old boy who has hanged himself. Suicide, says his colleague, but he is not convinced and, during the course of the book, we learn why. Most of the rest of the book is his story as a teenager and, in particular, his friendship with Ivan Loon (known as Loonie) and Bill Sanderson (known as Sando). Pikelet is a bit of a loner. He has conservative parents and is an only child. He does not make friends at school but then becomes friend with Loonie, a wild young man, whose mother is no longer around. Loonie lives with his father in a pub, so samples the delights of the pub, including stealing from the guests and spying on his father’s amorous activities. However, it is surfing that unites the two.

Both boys are keen on surfing but it is only when they meet Sando, an Australian married to Eva who is American and, as we learn, a former ski champion who has wrecked her knee, that things take off. Sando has surfed around the world and is not only a keen surfer but one always ready to take the challenge of a difficult surf. Loonie is a wild lad and so is eager to join in. Pikelet goes along but admits to being scared as their challenges get greater and greater, with sharks, massive waves and bomboras. His views are, of course, mixed. He loves being part of this small and clearly superior group (they are envied and admired by other surfers). He enjoys the challenge to a certain degree but still remains scared. Loonie’s daredevil approach results in his breaking his arm, which gives Pikelet an even better chance of cementing his friendship with Sando, as Loonie will not come along to watch but, when Loonie’s arm is better, it is with Loonie that Sando goes off to Indonesia, without any warning to Pikelet, who is deeply hurt. When they return, and face the ultimate test, a massive wave, Pikelet does not disgrace himself but it is Loonie who is shown, inevitably, to be the more daredevil. Pikelet has his compensations for when Sando and Loonie go off on their travels again, Pikelet finds his compensations with Eva, who is equally bitter about being deserted (and, as we learn, at her expense).

Pikelet’s experience with both Loonie and Sando on the one hand and with Eva on the other mark him for life as he tells us, almost in an afterword. But Winton’s failure here is to show the clear connection between what happened to him as a teenager and how this did mark him for life, preventing him from satisfactory relationships and a viable career. Winton seems very much enamoured with surfing and its intricacies, often at the expense of the story and while non-surfers can well appreciate the challenges the surfers face, it can swamp the story.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Hamish Hamilton