One of the hallmarks of Tim Winton’s work is the way he seems to achieve a sparse poetic intensity in the midst of a compelling and even simplistic storyline. Dreams, the sea, the sky, and desire seem to pervade the story, taking it closer, deeper and making it more powerful than a synopsis could convey. It would be fair to call Breath a surfing novel, as it is infused with the ocean, breaking waves, and the riding of the board. The protagonist, Bruce Pike is an ambulance driver whose grasp of death and the many pathways to death is just a little too astute for comfort. After attending the death of a teenager, he is reminded of a pivotal point in his youth: the summer when he surfed Old Smoky, the biggest, most dangerous wave on the Point, dodged a shark, fell in love, and found and lost friendship.
The novel is set as a flashback played through the throaty timbre of a didgeridoo. It’s a complete exhalation: the outward breath of the storyteller as he takes us through his visions. Though the main story takes place during one single summer, the impact of that period is broader – giving both meaning and a pervading sense of loss and nostalgia to Bruce Pike's life and the story as a whole. The fear that begins to grow on Pike, or Pikelet as he is known to his friends, is part of the transition to adulthood: a sense of mortality that the reader will understand:
Now I knew there was no room left in my life for stupid risks. Death was everywhere – waiting, welling, undiminished. It would always be coming for me and for mine and I told myself I could no longer afford the thrill of courting it. (248)
Nearly all of the characters in the story are unhappy and broken in one way or another. Bill Sanderson or Sando is the older surfer – a man who achieved some degree of fame in his younger days. Sando becomes a mentor for Pikelet and his friend Ivan Loon, or Loonie, an aptly named boy with a penchant for daredevilry. Together, the three begin a kind of adventure club where they aim to both increase their surfing skills and take on increasingly dangerous challenges in the surf. It begins safely enough, as a way to escape the ordinariness of the book's setting – Sawyer – the small working-class mill town in Western Australia where people keep to themselves. But as the story progresses and Sando’s attentions between the boys sparks a serious case of rivalry, things get darker. More risks are taken, and Eva, Sando’s injured American wife sets on her own self-destructive path that takes Pikelet along for a very different sort of ride. The ultimate impact on Pikelet is that he loses his sense of self and walks, tentatively and passionlessly, through much of his life, occasionally dabbling in a parallel self-destruction to Eva’s:
I didn’t understand this behaviour. I had no special interest in electricity. Granted, it’s a potent, tangible presence in a world that’s cast off presences. It just just a moment of righteous sensation, like a blow to the head. It knocked me down. It hurt like hell. But it was something I could feel. (252)
Though this is a painful and sad story, and one that doesn’t really end happily – the damage is permanent – there’s a transcendent beauty that runs through it, as it does through all of Winton’s novels. It is partly just the utter beauty of the prose. Winton’s words turn a paddle into the ocean into an epiphany:
Like you’ve exploded and all the pieces of you are reassembling themselves. You’re new. Shimmering. Alive. (138)
Nearly every line in this novel is taut and wrought with tender nerve-ending sensation that it’s impossible not to feel along with the characters. The power of the novel isn’t only in the stormy waves that Pikelet risks his life on. It’s in the quiet musings that take place between the Didgeridoo and the Ambulance rides later: the fear, greater than any wave, that life is just an inhalation and exhalation of breath and nothing more. The breath motif is everywhere. There’s Eva’s breath in a plastic bag; Pikelet’s father’s Apnoea at night; the breath holding between Pikelet and Loonie that prefigures their surfing exploits; the exhalation of didgeridoo that narrates the story; and, above all, the breath that is, metaphorically and actually, life itself. In the end, the journey becomes the point, and despite the damage, the breathing and dancing continue, creating meaning and value that needs "no explanation". It’s worth reading (and re-reading) Breath solely for the magic of its linguistic beauty. Tim Winton has created a tremendously powerful story that will continue to linger in the mind of the reader long past the initial reading.