It's not something you think much about, breathing, unless you're having major issues with it, but in Tim Winton's latest novel, breathing is integral to the story. The Australian author returns to his West Australian stomping ground to tell the tale of paramedic Bruce 'Pikelet' Pike, reminiscing about a period of his adolesence after coming back from an incident at work. The tale of the young Pikelet, living in a small, isolated town close to the West Australian coast, takes us through his development from a scared young boy into a teenager throwing himself into the ocean surf.
From the moment we meet him, he is starting to yearn to break away from the sleepy town which is 'suffocating' him, and everything which happens afterwards is an attempt to take risks and be something out of the ordinary. The question raised by the book is how far you should go to raise yourself above the crowd, to be something more than ordinary, without losing control of who you really are. Although Pikelet survives his youthful tribulations, he does not get through without scars, both physical and mental, as can be seen from the very start of the tale.
The title is well chosen: the allusions to breathing (or a lack thereof) are scattered throughout the book. Whether trying to escape from the claustrophobic environment of his hometown, listening to his father's sleep apnoea, or staying at the bottom of the freezing local river for as long as possible, Pikelet constantly experiences the extraordinary feelings associated with a lack of what most people take for granted. This theme of oxygen-starvation culminates in scenes which would seem startling in isolation yet appear to be a natural end to the progression of preceding events.
Winton is very good at taking readers' breath away (as you'd know if you had read my review of 'The Riders'), and this is another great piece of work. The only criticism I have is that it is a fairly short novel; it's 265-pages long, but there's plenty of white space around (and between) the actual words. It only took me just over two hours to get through the whole thing, and I always feel a little cheated when that happens. Of course, when you've just finished 'Middlemarch', anything under 500 pages is going to leave you feeling short-changed...
This is a 'Bildungsroman' for the surfing generation, but, unlike many books of this genre, the hero does not come through the testing fires of his formative years without a scratch. We are left pondering the dangers of growing up and thanking our lucky stars that we got through our teenage period in one piece. Anybody looking back on their childhood can probably remember turning points where things could have gone badly wrong (whether they involve surfing or not). Luckily, for most of us, after a short airless period, our lungs resumed sucking in oxygen and life went on with no real consequences. Winton shows us that it's not always that simple.