When I heard that Tim Winton’s ‘Breath’ had won the Miles Franklin award my first instinct was ‘what award is that?’ It transpires that it is a prize awarded to the best Australian book or play “portraying Australian life in any of its phases” (is it just me or should we not have one of these in the UK) looking through the list of previous winners I had to say I had only heard of Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally both of whom I have on the TBR pile also. My second reaction was “I think I need to read this book and soon” so I did.
From just after the opening sequence, a shocker I can tell you, at the start if the novel you can see why ‘Breath’ won the Miles Franklin Award. The book opens with our narrator, a paramedic, arriving at the scene of what appears to be an adolescent’s suicide and yet Brucie Pike is aware that it is in fact an act of auto- asphyxiation. From this shocking scene Brucie, now in his fifties, starts looking back of the summers of his ‘coming of age’ when he discovered surfing and sex.
One summer Brucie, or Pikelet as he if often called, becomes accidental friends with Loonie (a name that truly suits the crazed character) a friendship that his parents don’t really approve of as in a small town like Sawyer people talk and discussions involving Loonie and his father never seem to be too positive. The boys don’t care and through a love of dare devil diving, the deeper longer and more dangerous the better, build their friendship and find a new mutual love… surfing. The bigger the waves, the more risks of death and the more sharks the better as far as Loonie is concerned and here we see the friendship rocked slightly both by the arrival of Sando (an older surfing idol) and the fact that Loonie starts to want to take risks everywhere such as playing ‘William Tell’ with a dartboard or seeing how close he can get to his toes with an axe.
The somwhat invited infiltration to the duo by Sando is what starts to really test their friendship as both boys fight for his attention. Eventually the boys start taking trips with him and borrowing boards from his house under the watchful and untrusting eye of his wife Eva. Eva herself is a very complex character living through a trust fun of her fathers after her professional skiing days ended up giving her a crushed kneepad and some small mental disturbances that become more apparent as the story develops.
As Brucie’s fear builds up of the waves and the crazy path his life is taking Sando starts to neglect him in favour of Loonie who he takes on surfing expeditions around the world leaving Brucie and his wife Eva out in the cold with only each other for comfort which then become the darkest and most graphic part of the book leading to a chilling ending. I shall say no more than that for fear of giving anything away, but I was shocked and actually found some of it very hard to read, though if you can manage it do because its powerful stuff.
This book has been labelled a ‘coming of age tale’ (a label I don’t like and in fact puts me off a book) and though it is indeed about two boys becoming men it is also very much about the accidental meetings of four people all with one thing in common which is they have no fear and as the author says “no moral compass about the consequences of living”. You as the reader are simply taken along for the thrill and fall of it all.
I am actually finding it really interesting and refreshing that some slightly darker and more controversial (with being so just for the sake of it) books like this are winning more awards. Recently ‘The Slap’ (which I am desperate to get my hands on) by Christos Tsiolkas won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. I hope the Man Booker judges choose some slightly ‘out there’ books this year, especially as I am planning on reading as many as I can!