"Book lovers never go to bed alone"
Published in 2008, Breath is the eighth novel by award-winning Australian novelist Tim Winton, but I am ashamed to admit the first of his books that I have read. Had it not been on the list of Mosman Library's First Tuesday Evening Book Club, I probably would not have chosen it as my first taster of our Tim's work, believing "it was just all about surfing"! Set in a small Western Australian town called Sawyer in the 1970s - a good deal of the story is told within the context of surfing, but it is used as a metaphor for getting out of depth and pushing through fear to the next barrier, in search of the next 'fix', whether actually from surfing or other stimuli.
It was not just the intriguing opening hook of an ageing, rather politically incorrect male paramedic, Pikelet, attending the suicide of a young man with its sinister and implicit hint of auto eroticism, which immediately grabbed my attention, but Tim's inimitable style of writing. Throughout the novel his short, pithy sentences pack in such a load of information and a host of deft description the reader's five senses are constantly activated. You really can see the scene, when he writes: "The sun blazes through the trees in rods". You can feel the awe in the pit of your stomach when he describes what it's like to crash down the face of a "thick purple frown of water" breaking over bare rocks three miles out to sea. You can hear how the hooves of panicked cattle sound scraping against the blacktop after a tractor-trailer overturns. You can smell the scent of the character, Eva, in your nostrils: "She was a foot away. She smelled of butter and cucumber and coffee and antiseptic".
After the opening scene, the novel is told in one long flashback by Pikelet. The reader follows him through his exploits at school; his friendship with the risk-taking Loonie and their relationship and death-defying feats with the surfing guru Sando; Pikelet's coming of age and his sexual relationship with Sando's wife, Eva, who is ten years Pikelet's senior and and has been left lame from a skiing accident; Pikelet's eventual 'conventional' marriage, and his father's death. But Tim Winton cleverly weaves the thread of 'breath' through the novel, from the opening scene of the self-asphyxiation of a young man, to Pikelet bursting for breath under water, to obeying Eva's edgy, kinky commands to almost strangle her during sex, to hearing his father draw his last breath on his death bed. Notwithstanding this, the book is full of raw beauty and fabulously crafted writing. I couldn't put it down.