After departing 19th century New Zealand, my Booktrotting tour comes to the final stop on its Oceania leg, Australia—more specifically, the southwest coast of Tim Winton’s Breath.
Rising sharply from the seabed the shoal at Old Smoky was like a sunken building, windows open, teeming with blue morwongs, harlequins and boarfish. In the water column above, schools of buffalo bream churned restless circles; in the mouths of caves were lobsters the size of cattle dogs.
In a small mill town on the Australian west coast, eleven-year-old Bruce Pike grows up exhausted by the stillness of his surroundings. Together with town wild boy Loonie, he is drawn out to the booming ocean on his doorstep, and falls under the spell of the power of the waves and the mythical knot of men who surf them. Soon the boys have boards of their own—and spurred on by their own young courage and the awe of their peers, Pikelet and Loonie enter into an intoxicating world of exhilaration, immortality and fear.
I changed my mind a lot when looking for an Australian Booktrotting read; pretty much everywhere I looked turned up something that caught my eye, from The Secret River and The Narrow Road to the Deep North to anything by Miles Franklin.
But when I found Tim Winton’s “love letter to the sea” Breath, I settled on it straight away. Granted, my own stretch of the Somerset coast is a far cry from the bluffs and bomboras of Western Australia, but nevertheless I, like young Pikelet, have grown up beside and in reverence of the ocean, and I always love authors who can put that feeling into better words than I’ve ever managed. Add in Pike’s small town upbringing and love of literature, and I thought he would be a character that was achingly familiar, despite our being separated by some 9,000 miles.
And yet, in spite of the many similarities, I struggled to find much relation with Pike’s story. Obviously surfing is a major part of Breath, and, although Winton keeps the jargon to an understandable minimum, there were plenty of times when I felt too far removed from Pike’s experiences to really engage with them. In particular, Winton’s depictions of the act of surfing itself (“the huge body-rush we got flying down the line with the wind in our ears”) often lost clarity amidst the breathless adrenaline of the moment.
(I did however find an affinity with Pikelet when he confessed he could get no more than a few chapters into Moby Dick—I wondered if he, like I, had fallen for Melville’s opening poetry about the allure of the ocean, only to be turned off by all the whaling gore and narrative tangents that followed.)
But to treat Breath as just a surfing novel would be to ignore its greatest attribute. This is, above all, a coming-of-age story, a terrific (and no doubt autobiographical) snapshot of life on the cusp of manhood in 1970s Australia. It’s as much about the ocean as it is about family, masculinity, and finding one’s place in the world.
The surfing is just an extension of that. Thanks to the likes of Home and Away, it’s easy for us in Britain to see surfing as nothing more than an Aussie cliché—but to Loonie and Pikelet, under the tutelage of their hippy mentor Sando, it’s a rite of passage, their personal bridge from innocence to adulthood.
To Pike, his time on the waves is also a means of vital self-expression. During his first encounters with Sando and the other surfers, he is enthralled by the elegance of what they can do, by “how strange it was to see men do something beautiful,” and later notes how his own style of surfing has a grace and finesse that Loonie’s blind bravado lacks. He regards surfing as a kind of physical poetry, something “pointless and beautiful” that exists beyond the ideas of masculinity his traditional, agricultural hometown has to offer. It seems strange to say, given surfing’s modern day image, but for Bruce Pike—and perhaps for Tim Winton too—taking on the ocean was not about the death-defying thrill, but about finding his own interpretation of what it is to be a man.
From Australia my Booktrotting tour now leaves Oceania behind and begins its third leg, in Asia—beginning with The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysia’s Tan Twan Eng.