Like The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll this is a recent Australian novel by an author already enjoying a considerable reputation. Both novels are set mainly in 1970s Australia, and both are characterised by exceptionally lucid, often rather lyrical prose. But the differences between them are considerable.
Breath could be regarded as a bildungsroman, a novel of growing up. Told by a middle-aged narrator, Bruce Pike (Pikelet), who works as a paramedic, it focuses on a time when he was aged about eleven to fifteen. Living with rather colourless parents in a Western Australian logging town close to the sea, he befriends and is befriended by a boy of a similar age, Ivan Loon (Loonie), who is far rougher and wilder than the somewhat bookish Pikelet but shares with him a love of the daring and the risky. The two boys are taken under his wing by Bill Sanderson (Sando), a somewhat enigmatic ex-surfing champion in his mid-thirties who lives a somewhat hippy existence on the coast with Eva, his embittered wife. Coached by Sando the boys embark on a series of ever more extreme and dangerous surfing adventures, until Pikelet eventually indicates that he does not wish to take the risk involved. This produces a split: Sando and Loonie head off on a series of overseas trips without Pikelet, who in their absence becomes sexually involved with Eva, a physically handicapped ex-champion in a form of extreme skiing who can derive sexual satisfaction only from a procedure involving asphixation almost to the point of death. The relationship ends when Eva becomes pregnant, Sando and Eva more away, and Pikelet returns to his studies.
This is a novel about surfing, but only in the sense that the novels of Joseph Conrad are about the sea. Winton seems to know surfing, and gives the non-surfer a sense of its attractions, but his real interest is in facing risk, confronting one's fears and death, and getting to know oneself. The writing is powerful and often very graceful, and the short but powerful work is easily digested.
Reviewers I have examined all praise the book very highly. Their main criticism is that the ending is unsatisfactory: it is described by some as too long, by others as rushed. Paradoxically, both criticisms probably contain some truth: what we learn about the future careers of the four main characters is a bit unsatifying, and it might have been better either to have omitted it, or to have treated it in more detail.
For this reader the character of Sando is a problem. For Pikelet and Loonie he is for a long time a macho superhero to be worshipped. We do see another side through the comments of Eva, who suggests his friendship with the boys more than twenty years his junior reflects a refusal to acknowledge he is growing older and who reveals that she and Sando live on trust funds provided by her family (though there is more than a hint of darker sources of income). Winton' s portrait of him is quite sympathetic: Sando is exceptionally well-read, we are told, a meticulous planner, and ultimately a very successful businessman. We do see the dangers into which he leads the boys, and the longterm harm he does them, but one wonders if Winton, like Lawrence and Hemingway, may not be a bit enamoured of the idea of the powerful, ruthless Adonis. Arguably Sando is a criminally irresponsible idiot who wants to be 'king of the kids' and the fact that his foolhardy activities do not kill or seriously maim his young disciplies owes as much to good luck as good management. The samples of his philosophy we encounter are trite in the extreme.
The 1970s are well evoked. Winton seems correct in pointing out that the friendship described between a mature man and two young boys would not have been regarded with immediate suspicion then as it would now. (One review erwrites of 'thinly disguised homoerotic tension' but I do not detect this.) On a more trivial note, however, I do not think male speedos were called 'budgie smugglers' in the 1970s, or that they were then regarded as unduly revealing beach attire!