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Reviews

Breath

Tim Winton
Picador, 215pp

Breath'It's funny, but you never really think much about breathing. Until it's all you ever think about,' reflects Bruce 'Pikelet' Pike, the forty-something narrator of Breath, Tim Winton's beguiling eighth novel. Pike, a compassionate but cagey and emotionally bruised paramedic, confesses to a life-long obsession with 'the enigma of respiration'. In fact, his creator seems to share this elemental fascination: Winton's last full novel, for example - the Booker-Prize short-listed Dirt Music (2001) - culminated in one of its protagonists receiving the kiss of life. This focus on the most basic act of existence is characteristic of a novelist who has a gift for rendering the details of everyday life with peculiar, shocking intensity.

During Winton's career of nearly thirty years (his first novel was published when he was in his early twenties), he has quietly gained a reputation as one of the finest writers in the English language. Indeed, his fellow novelist Philip Hensher has recently described Winton's fifth novel, Cloud Street - a sublime, sad, surreal family saga - as 'one of the great masterpieces of world fiction'. His recurrent themes are innocence lost and looked for, the wonderful strangeness of faith and the endless mysteries of nature.

Breath, a narrative about risk and regret, delight and damage, recounts the story of Pikelet's teenage years in a secluded town on the coast of Western Australia. Winton is rightly celebrated as a virtuoso writer of place and his imaginative recreation of his native Australian landscape, both suburban and coastal, now rivals Hardy's Wessex or Dickens' London for its luminous distinctiveness. This vital imaginative geography is matched by a sharp ear for salty dialogue ('I live at the pub, you dick. The only thing flows faster'n beer is talk') and an ability to represent the interior life of adolescent characters.

Pikelet and his impetuous best friend, Ivan 'Loonie' Loon, spend their days diving in the river, competing with one another and teasing tourists with their breath-holding exploits. When the boys graduate from the river to the ocean - initially forbidden by Pikelet's cautious, conventional father - the story takes on the exalted language of epiphany.

Surfing, their new passion, is presented as a religious experience. There is a vivid, near absurd joy in watching men, associated with the banality of work, 'do something beautiful . . . pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared'. Remembering the 'billion shards of light' and intoxicating rush of his first wave, Pikelet confesses that he still judges 'every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living'. What might, in the hands of a lesser writer, be the basis of a simple rites-of-passage narrative, is transformed into a disquieting, poignant and occasionally beautiful work of fiction.

Winton's debt to Mark Twain is playfully alluded to in the name of Pikelet's hometown, Sawyer, a tiny, one pub, gossip-driven sawmill settlement. Similarly, Pikelet and Loonie's initially low-key, adolescent fight against boredom - their rejection of being 'ordinary' - plays out like Tom and Huck's adventures on the Mississippi. Yet, like the apparently innocent dares and role-playing of Twain's celebrated stories, the spirited antics of this duo also have more melancholy and potentially sinister undercurrents. From the vantage point of middle-age, Pikelet asks himself whether his teenage addiction to risk was 'anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath'.

This private revolt takes on a darker, suddenly adult atmosphere when these likeably raw boys encounter a charismatic but reckless couple, the 'delicious enigma' Sando and his similarly mysterious wife, Eva. Winton's exploration of emergent sexuality and its terrible abuse is handled with sensitivity and unremitting precision. The sexual encounters are never pornographic but, make no mistake, explores desire at its most desperate and selfish and it would take a particularly detached reader not to be upset - shocked even - by the games into which Pikelet is drawn.

Winton's unflinching representation of wilfully self-destructive human behaviour connects him with Flannery O'Connor, a distinguished novelist of spiritual struggle and an acknowledged influence. 'It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life,' O'Connor once argued. Winton, who is candid and articulate when quizzed about his Christian faith, is never guilty of splitting the spiritual from the everyday. In Breath, he confronts sin, shame and reconciliation with an all too rare boldness. The result is a bracing, strange and troubling piece of fiction - somehow both utterly recognizable and shockingly new in its evocation of lost innocence, soured friendship and the persistent possibility of grace.

Andrew Tate