Breath
by Tim Winton
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

It’s been a great year for literary books about sports. Joseph O’
Neill’s
Netherland, a novel about cricket, is one of the most highly
lauded works of fiction so far this year. Garth
Stein’s
The Art Of Racing In The Rain deals with
race car driving. And two weeks ago, Haruki
Murakami, of all people, weighed in with a
memoir on running.

But make room on the shelf for Tim Winton’s
Breath, which is a contender for the great
surfing novel. This author has long garnered
praise for his vivid evocations of the Australian
landscape, but now he moves offshore and
shows he is equally skilled at probing the
ocean and what it conveys, either cresting
on its waves or hidden beneath its beguiling surface.

Perhaps Winton aims to cover all four of the ancient elements.
After his
Dirt Music, a 2002 effort short-listed for the Booker Prize,
and this new celebration of water, what is left? Clearly a novel
about air and another about fire to complete the tetralogy. (And,
no, Winton’s novel
Cloudstreet did not take place on a cloud, so it
doesn’t count.)

The waves here are as memorable as the characters in other
books. Here we encounter the enticing but precarious surf at
Barney’s Beach –- Barney is the name of the 14-foot great white
shark who patrols the waters. Or we learn of Old Smoky, massive
white waves that break off coast in a location so inaccessible that
surfers need to scale cliffs to reach them. But the return trip is
even more hazardous. Best of all is the Nautilus, where a
devastating wave breaks on a huge lump of rock far offshore, and
even the most skilled surfer can only ride it for a few seconds.

We soon begin to realize that
Breath is not so much about surfing,
as it is about risk-taking. Two youngsters, the narrator Pikelet and
his friend the aptly-named Loonie, fall under the influence of an
aging surfer. The trio get caught up in a crazy spiral of trying to
prove themselves and test each other with greater and greater
dangers. Not all of the risks, however, take place in the waters.
We learn that every setting, from the woodshed to the bedroom,
can serve as a makeshift arena where a thrill-seeker can push
things to the edge, and beyond.

Eva, the abrasive American wife of the older surfer Sando, stands
as a walking, or rather limping, warning of what happens when
courting danger becomes an end it itself. Eva was once a freestyle
skier, famous more for her death-defying acrobatics than for skill
or finesse. Then she suffered a career-ending injury that has left
her barely able to walk. Yet Eva herself has hardly learned from
her mishap, and eventually demonstrates that her propensity for
deadly behavior outstrips even the exploits of those who ride the
waves.

Long ago, Freud introduced the concept of
thanatos, the so-called
death instinct. Many have dismissed or even ridiculed this notion,
so un-Darwinian in its nature. How can we have a death instinct,
when all instinctual drives seem based on preserving and
extending life? Yet Winton shows even more persuasively in story
form what Freud tried to outline in theory. Winton’s characters
reveal a barely hidden passion for non-existence, and death
lingers at the fringes of almost every scene in this penetrating
novel.

Not everything works in this book. The narrative at the end comes
across as hurried, and we move so quickly through Pikelet’s later
life that the drama and build of the first 80% of the book is
dissipated. Yet the core of this novel is gripping, and Winton’s
ability to bring out the beauty of the elements, while also
illuminating the dark psyches of his protagonists, is impressive.

“Writing a book is a bit like surfing,” Winton mentioned in a recent
interview. Certainly he shows his mastery of the ebbs and flows in
this striking book. But even better is the skill with which Winton
probes the depths.

This review originally appeared in
Blogcritics.