Recommendation: The ending lets it down but it’s probably worth reading anyway

Where to read: Not at the beach

Read with: A good, rich cuppa

In brief: Breath builds slowly and elegantly before concluding with the literary equivalent of an abrupt dunking. I’d be tempted to revisit it in a year or two.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, but this is the first Winton I’ve read, having miraculously managed to avoid Dirt Music and Cloudstreet throughout both high school and university (though I’d have traded either of those for the Patrick White I was condemned to). You can probably read cultural cringe into that if you want to.

The real strength of Breath is the prose – Winton’s descriptions of the ocean are glorious and the passages about surfing almost tempt me (until I remember that ocean swimming scares me witless and I can’t even body board). He’s a master of imagery, conjuring up the exhilaration of risk taking, the catharsis in that first breath above the surface, the visceral terror of an overpowering ocean and desperate adolescent bravado.

In terms of narrative arc, it could be read in some respects as a typical coming-of-age novel – a young man trying to find his place, a small, painfully provincial hometown, an older mentor, sexual awakening and the loss of childhood illusions.

In other respects, Winton presents a far more complicated picture. Sando, the older surfer who takes “Pikelet” and “Loonie” under his wing, is an ambiguous figure, both prophet and probable drug kingpin. His interactions with Pikelet are comparatively benign (other than the surfing-related insanity) however it becomes increasingly clear throughout the novel that he involves Loonie in the Indonesian-Australian drug trade with ultimately fatal consequences. More seriously, the “affair” between Eva and Pikelet is straight-up disturbing. Eva is 25, Pikelet is 15 and she arguably coerces him to choke her during sex, to his intense distress.

And here lies my problem with Breath – in the last 50 or so pages. Having pushed the surfing-as-dancing-with-death theme about as far as it can rationally go, it escalates to erotic asphyxiation, hits the shoals of discomfort, breaks and crashes with unseemly haste over the head of the unsuspecting reader.

Structurally mimicking the surf he’s spent so many pages describing, Winton rushes right through hard questions about abuse and trauma. Uncomfortably, it leads to reactions like this:

If the tangled encounter with Eva and Sando doesn’t quite seem like enough to reduce a man to a lifetime of failed relationships, psychiatric hospitalizations and therapeutic blowing on his didgeridoo…

New York Times

On one view, Winton is asking readers to question why we ask that question, why we minimise the seriousness of a grown woman exploiting a 15 year old boy. Sexual abuse can, and not infrequently does, result in precisely those outcomes (except maybe the didgeridoo) so maybe it’s telling when we as readers feel like Pikelet’s collapse as a grown man comes out of nowhere. On another view, Breath is a novel too absorbed in the beauty of its metaphors, too caught in its own thematic riptide (much like this review) to call a spade a spade.

Either way, Breath is exhilarating, beautiful and leaves sand in uncomfortable places.

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