Breath by Tim Winton, a review by Jennifer McDonald

Soon after Breath won the 2009 Miles Franklin Award I bought a copy and put it in my bookcase. Life got in the way and Breathsat there until this April when I first heard of Simon Baker’s directorial debut in the movie by the same name. It was worth the wait. I devoured the book in a matter of days before seeing the film on release day at the Palace Theatre in Norton Street, Sydney.

I like to credit myself as a fan of Tim Winton before he became as acclaimed as he is now. My bookcase sports several of his pre-Cloudstreet works namely The Riders,That Eye The Skyand In The Winter DarkWhile I’m a little rusty on the storylines of these books after so many years, the feelings Tim Winton’s writing evoke in me have never faded. When I started in on Breath, these came rushing back to me with a force to rival the biggest waves ever ridden by Loonie, Pikelet and Sando.

I’m sure I can add nothing to the chorus of high praise Winton has consistently attracted over the years from more erudite literary types than myself. Nevertheless, I will try to accurately describe the emotional impact Tim Winton’s style of stringing words together has on me. Why? Because it is central to my mindset as I entered the cinema to see Breath on the big screen.

Winton writes in a straightforward way that is highly accessible to the reader while completely transcending the ordinary. His words are authentic, evocative and lyrical, without a hint of literary pretension. Early on in Breath, Pikelet – the book’s main voice – gives us this first insight into what can only be described as the beginnings of his and Loonie’s obsession with surfing:

I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day.  How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.

‘Pointless and elegant’. It’s hard to think of a more apt description for a person jumping to their feet on a board while skimming down the face of a wall of water. The adult Pikelet goes onto say,

The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward…And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living.

Breath is ostensibly a coming of age story but it’s a complicated one.  Two teenage boys, growing up in the 1970s, are living in a dying mill town set on a placid river that flows to, but doesn’t quite connect with, the thundering surf beaches of Western Australia’s southern-most parts. Pikelet is the only child in a loving but dull working-class home. Loonie’s father is the local publican who tends towards violence and has already been through a couple of wives. Pikelet craves escape from the ordinary and Loonie’s devil-may-care temperament is just the ticket. They discover the sea and quickly become hooked on the rush of riding waves, bringing them into contact with the enigmatic former surfing champion Sando, and his secretive and surly American wife, Eva.

The visceral beauty in Winton’s words are always, always underpinned by a sense of foreboding. I’ve felt this in every Tim Winton book I have ever read and Breath is no exception. In the telling of ordinary things, like swimming in a river, riding bikes to the beach or sitting on the school bus, Winton keeps readers on the edge of their seats, wondering if this is moment where disaster will strike, and what form that disaster will take.

This inexorable sense of dread compels one to keep reading, to get to the bottom of whatever it is the author is trying to subliminally impart. Breath is so much more than a coming of age story. It is a deeply disturbing cautionary tale of addiction to the most potent substance of all – adrenaline.

Sando was good at portraying the moment you found yourself at your limit, when things multiplied around you like an hallucination…And when he talked about the final rush, the sense of release you felt at the end, skittering out to safety in the beautiful deep channel, Eva sometimes sank back with her eyes closed and her teeth bared, as though she knew only too well.  

There was a real opportunity to bugger up the film version of this complex, emerging- from-the-chrysalis-of-youth story. And I hoped beyond hope that Winton’s masterful command of the undercurrent of impending tragedy, like a storm brewing on the horizon, wouldn’t be lost in Breath’s translation to the screen.

Thankfully it wasn’t.  The sense of foreboding was palpable in almost every scene, rendered in heartbreakingly beautiful images – like the white tops of heaving waves just visible over the sand bar behind which Pikelet and his father fish from their tinny, barely bobbing on the quiet river. Or how, after a severe wipe-out, Pikelet appears as a tiny, prone speck surrounded by white foam on top of a churning deep-blue ocean.

The backing track of pounding surf, Loonie’s hoot of triumph when he manages to catch hold of a passing ute for a drag-along on his bike; or the rattle of Sando’s combi van engine as it pulls up outside Pikelet’s house in a winter dawn, also plays an important part in this exquisite sense of dreadful anticipation. Coupled with a suitably efficient screenplay (thanks in no small part by Tim Winton’s input) Breath the movie certainly captures the foreboding undercurrent of the print version.

What it doesn’t do so well, in my humble opinion, is examine the vexing and multi-faceted nature of addiction, a powerful and devastating theme of Breath the book. While the references to addiction are frequent and obvious in the film, the relentless, life-threatening and ultimately life-ruining nature of addiction to processes (like extreme surfing and aerial skiing), as opposed to substances (such as Eva’s painkillers and perpetual hash-smoking) remains largely unexplored.

These are big issues, of course, and Breath is only an hour and fifty-five minutes long so one can hardly expect a dissertation. However, while I was slightly disappointed by this, my movie companion who had not read the book, was unperturbed. When she asked if the film was an accurate representation of Tim Winton’s book, what else could I say but yes?

Breath is a gob-smackingly beautiful and visually memorable film which I would advise you to see before you read the book. Peculiar advice coming from a publisher, I know, but there is method in my madness.  This way, when you come to read Breath (which I also strongly advise you to do) you’ll get a second, bigger hit from the story, which is probably the point Tim Winton was trying to make all along.