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Sunday, April 26, 2009

In and out of Breath - by Tim Winton

Last week, I was going to post the following, plus all the other reports, but since then I have read Breath and just want to post this judges' report, then comment on it. Okay?

Miles Franklin Literary Award 2009

Judges’ Formal Comments
Breath, Tim Winton


When paramedic Bruce Pike attends the death of a seventeen year old boy he alone can read the signs: a bedroom reeking of pot, ligature marks on the boy’s neck, a pattern of older bruises around them. In this compelling and masterly novel about rites of passage, Pike goes on to recall his own adolescence in an ordinary mill town on the West Australian coast in the 1960s. Dedicated young surfers, Pikelet and his mate Loonie are taken in hand during their final year of school by Sando, an older American surfer who has ridden the break at Oahu, and his partner Eva, a ski jump champion from Utah. Beside Sando and Eva, Pikelet’s parents seem bland, their drab suburban lives pointless and uninspiring. Compared to Sando, his father is scarcely a man. At twenty five, Eva was ‘a woman not in the least ordinary’; at seventeen, Pikelet is ‘jailbait’. Taken out of school, he is inducted into a range of extreme experiences: with Sando, he graduates from riding the huge storm waves at the Point to the terrifying bombora known as Old Smoky; with Eva he learns another kind of limit experience.

Breath is a searing document about masculinity, about risk, and about young people’s desire to push the limits. Winton is at the height of his powers as a novelist, and this is his greatest love letter yet to the sea, to the coast of West Australia, and a compelling testimony to the role of surfing in Australian culture. Written in Winton’s own distinctive voice, we can sense that it is also a homage to some of his favourite writers: Salinger, Faulkner, Melville and Hemingway. But as we are drawn in by the elemental currents of its narrative and the compelling, wave-like force of events, Breath raises disturbing questions about desire and ‘the damage done’. What lines are crossed during rite’s passage? What ethical constraints affect relations between different generations of men and women? Throughout the novel we hear the scream of wind and storm waves and the distant, siren call of the bombora – surf breaking far out at sea. After ‘so much damage, too much shame’, can there be a going back?


Well, I disagree in part with this assessment. I found the book absolutely wonderful when it was about Pikelet and Sando and Eva - the 'flash back' which is a load more than a 'flash back' in size and impact. I found it less convincing in the so-called present scenes. In fact, I found the two areas of present and past to be written with different measures of passion: the present is written in a calculated, conscious style, while the past is written with true passion and a poetical depth and breadth. It's not hard to guess which I prefer.

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genevieve said...

Andrew, I hung out for the second instalment of the Bombora doco on ABC TV recently because I've never seen one. It brought the book right into focus.
And I wonder too if the present sections have that taut,clipped back feel because the danger has been pegged back and rerouted into other people's risktaking now, the accident victims that Pike 'rescues'. He is, after all, considered a cowboy ambulance driver - and I think the risktaker still lives under all that, hence the deliberate tension in the writing.

Andrew said...

Yes, I must agree that I think the shift in style is intentional, and you may have laid your finger on its purpose. I enjoyed the intensity and storyline of the surfing story so much I was a little put off by the cowboy ambo narrative. Thanks for bringing that into the conversation.