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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
By: 
Tim Winton
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Award Year: 
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A-BreathTim Winton, one of Australia’s premier novelists, was short-listed twice for the Booker Prize—first for The Riders (1995) and then for Dirt Music ( 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003). We also reviewed The Turning ( 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006). Here, he pens a coming-of-age tale set amid the crests and troughs of the world of surfing.

The Story: In the 1970s, Brucie "Pikelet" Pike, a teenager bored with life in his small Australian mill town, and his best friend Ivan "Loonie" Loon, do little more than swim in a nearby river until they meet Sando, an older, once legendary surfer. For Sando, surfing has become a way to commune with nature, and Pikelet and Loonie quickly become his disciples, testing their limits at every turn. But Sando’s strange wife isn’t quite as impressed with her would-be guru of a husband, and soon both sexual and emotional entanglements complicate all of their relationships. Winton keeps the physicality of surfing at the center of the novel—a theme on which he builds some hauntingly lyrical riffs.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 218 pages. $23. ISBN 0374116342

Guardian [London] 4 of 5 Stars
"Breath lacks some of the sweep of his previous two novels—there are moments when things feel a little rushed—but it has the urgent clarity of a story that needed to be told. … This is not a story about surfing; it’s a story about fear, about pushing beyond fear, and about becoming addicted to the pushing." Patrick Ness

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Winton often locates a transcendent wisdom in nature, letting it guide his analogies to time, space, longing and the sort of existential entrapment that comes from being born into a particular place and culture. … In his best moments of controlled, evocative storytelling, Winton’s descriptions eschew metaphor altogether and instead masterfully balance visual imagery with colloquial language." Kathryn Crim

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"In general, Winton rides the line between terror, joy and hokum with exquisite balance. … He stays just ahead of the accumulating weight of portentous surf-wisdom, wryly mocking it even as it drives the story forward." Jennifer Schuessler

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Breath has flaws—it loses steam at the end, a major character vanishes without explanation, the final third is more about sex and despair than about the surfing and struggle that built the story—but it is, amazingly, an evocative, salty, utterly real plunge into the Winton World. Like the American masters William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Alice McDermott, Winton has created a place so fictively real that it truly reveals the complex people and passions of his native Western Australian seacoast." Brian Doyle

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The addictive nature of risk and danger; hero worship; the dynamics of emotional ties; lost dreams; the cluelessness of parents—Winton has important things to say about these things and more. … In the end, the book seems as simple, and as vital, as the act of breathing itself." Adam Wood

Times [London] 4 of 5 Stars
"While Breath deals with primal, mythic conflicts—the clash of wilderness and civilization, self and society, youth and age—it does not strain for epic effect. … It is a quiet, feather-fingered style that nonetheless has the power to claw." Rónán McDonald

Critical Summary

Despite the novel’s emotional tangles and amours, critics were most impressed with Winton’s wonderfully limpid style. It echoes through a lonely, often isolating world, and there seems to be nothing in nature he can’t transform into prose. The story and characters received slightly more mixed reviews, though critics agreed that even for nonsurfers, the coming-of-age story rings true. Reviewers also praised the framework of a middle-aged man looking back on some formative teenage experiences, when sex and danger created new highs. A couple of reviewers noted some surfing-related clichés—but they simply make the well-written parts all the more striking. Or, as Winton writes, "You never really think much about breathing, until it’s all you ever think about."