Walking on Water

Breath

by Tim Winton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 218 pp., $23.00

Tim Winton, the prolific Australian author of Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, and The Riders, among nine novels, three short-story collections, six children’s books, and three nonfiction books, has a genius for the ungainly comedy of family life and the isolated sadness of lovers. But he is also a writer who values themes, a practitioner of what might be called the school of Macho Romanticism, or perhaps better, Heroic Sensitivity. His novels, often set on the sea in Western Australia, are grand, gothically lyrical affairs, beautifully written and spiritually overwrought. They can partake of giddy magical realism, like Cloudstreet, the immensely popular 1992 novel of two families haunted by ghosts, angels, and a talking pig; or like Dirt Music they can partake of the solemn wilderness epic, placing a guilt-ridden musician on a remote island to hallucinate as he plucks on a single, droning nylon string. Winton’s characters tend to flirt with death, long for death, while at the same time bravely suffering physical hardship in order to escape death.

The new novel is also charged with physical danger, physical courage, and Winton’s brand of rugged introspection. But it is far less extravagant in style and scope than some of his earlier work. Interestingly, for a book about risk, this novel is meticulously, intensely careful in its composition. Breath is distilled Winton.

Bruce Pike, “a lone child and solitary by nature,” growing up in the 1970s, is eleven years old. His family life is muted, mired, the antithesis of risk:

Somewhere along the way I became aware that my parents were old people with codgers’ interests. They pottered about with their vegetables and poultry. They smoked their own fish and mended and embroidered. Of an evening they listened to the radio, or the wireless, as they called it.

Even the town he lives in, a small mill town in Western Australia called Sawyer, is “drab and fixed.” It is only when he meets Ivan Loon, the publican’s unruly, motherless son, that the boy starts to come alive. Loonie and Pikelet, as they call each other, meet at the river, and though it is slow and brown with tannin, in this unlikely body of water they first discover a mutual pleasure in danger that becomes the beginning of an intense friendship. Together, friends and rivals, the boys dive to the dark riverbed, hanging on to slimy roots, testing themselves, holding their breaths until their heads “were full of stars…. We scared people, pushing each other harder and harder until often as not we scared ourselves.”

Pikelet is the calm, thoughtful fifty-year-old narrator of his own careless, frenetic youth. He shows us a boy who grapples with the meaning of his world and his place in it, who discovers himself amid both the roar and rubble and the interminable hush of the world around him; in its shape and its preoccupations, Breath is a classic coming-of-age novel, and it’s a good one, too. But here the story of a …

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