I live on a large island that is mostly desert and thus the vast majority of humanity cling to the coast. Cling, not only because we desire to live on somewhat arable land, but because many of us have a deep-felt emotional and cultural connection to the sea and those golden strips of beach. I am one of those limpets. Stick me in the path of an ocean breeze and I immediately feel recharged; put me in view of crashing waves or sparkling water and I feel happy to a Sound-of-Music degree. Oh yes, I love the sea. Summer or winter, calm waves or homicidal, rocky or sandy beaches; there is a pull there which comes from more than simply being Australian or having fond memories of family holidays.
O is for the Ocean, and it is represented by Tim Winton and his novel Breath. It’s a rare Winton story that doesn’t feature water, and in Breath it’s virtually on every page. Lapping at your imagination, crashing out behind your subconscious, seeping into your being. Pikelet and Loonie are young teenagers in the 1970s in a small Western Australian, who befriend a legendary surfer while testing their own wave skills in shark-riddled, rip-insane waters. It is a coming-of-age story, an exploration of risk, a love letter to the art of slicing through the deep blue on a small shard of fibreglass.
Breath is a novel which is about a lot more than surfing; but really, it’s still mostly about surfing. At least, that’s what I liked most about it and what drew me back to the pages. Which, I have to say, kind of surprises me; but the fact that it did became part of my enjoyment of the reading experience.
When I started high school it was very cool to have a surf-brand wallet and a crush on Kelly Slater. Keanu Reeves was starring in Point Break, Pearl Jam made video clips that were just of dudes catching waves, and a friend and I bought fluoro t-shirts with ‘O’Neill’ blazoned across the front for $15 and thought we’d scored the bargain of the year. But apart from this minor pop-culture fascination, I didn’t really know much about surfing; and when I worked out that my brown hair and intensely fair skin made me the virtual opposite of what a surfie chick was supposed to look like, I moved on to other interests like Jeff Buckley and vampire slayers and never looked back. To me, surfing has always seemed like something you had to be involved in to be able to properly understand, and as a result, it remains a mystery to many of us, a mere background to a beach-side jaunt; impressive, sure, but something you are happy to leave to others. And so, as a green-room ignoramus, how interesting could I find a novel about surfing? Well, in the hands of Tim Winton, immensely interesting and attention-grabbing. I could taste the salty water, feel the sand in the creases of my skin, hear the mighty waves booming as they hit the reef.
Winton is a most excellent writer and storyteller, and his ability to describe the world around his characters in such detail, and with such feeling and such a sense of what is real (to the character and their experiences) has always made me hold him in high esteem and brought me back to his books again and again. His writing can appear deceptively simple, but like those signs on a creaking jetty: the water is much deeper than it appears. I didn’t get lost in the pages of Breath, I somehow became a part of them. The story flows so smoothly, and the voice of Bruce Pike, the narrator, seems so natural and, well, internal. Winton has an ear for language that is precise and honest, and an amazing ability to express the feelings, insecurities and wayward thoughts of his characters that can touch you in a place you weren’t even aware was hiding deep inside you.
Tim Winton has changed the landscape of Australian literature and is able to speak to a broad cross-section of readers, perhaps more so than any other Australian literary author writing today. And though he has been criticised for his female characters lacking complexity, his skill of writing about boyhood, manhood and male sensibilities has such a ring of truth to it, and is such a pleasure, that perhaps we should just learn to cope with the idea that his female characters are not always so well-rounded. (Mind you, in Cloudstreet one of my favourite characters is Oriel Lamb, the mother who decides to live in a tent in the backyard and she has always ‘spoken’ to me as a strong female character.)
Breath is about a lot more than surfing, but it was Winton’s writing about the ocean, and the characters’ connections to it which made me like this novel, and appreciate the writing, so much. I’m not sure I agree with all the quotes plastered on the cover of my copy which have every golden reviewer in the land saying it’s the best thing Winton’s ever written (there were a few elements in the story I wasn’t so fussed on, the odd tie missing), but I certainly enjoyed reading it, I valued it, and just like I do with the ocean, I felt pulled to come back to it again and again.