Breath

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Overview

Breath is a story of risk, of learning one's limits by challenging death. On the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia, two thrill-seeking teenage boys fall under the spell of a veteran big-wave surfer named Sando. Their mentor urges them into a regiment of danger and challenge, and the boys test themselves and each other on storm swells and over shark-haunted reefs. The boys give no thought to what they could lose, or to the demons that drive their mentor on into ever-greater danger. Venturing beyond all ...

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Breath: A Novel

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Overview

Breath is a story of risk, of learning one's limits by challenging death. On the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia, two thrill-seeking teenage boys fall under the spell of a veteran big-wave surfer named Sando. Their mentor urges them into a regiment of danger and challenge, and the boys test themselves and each other on storm swells and over shark-haunted reefs. The boys give no thought to what they could lose, or to the demons that drive their mentor on into ever-greater danger. Venturing beyond all caution—in sports, relationships, and sex—each character approaches a point from which none of them will return undamaged.

Winner of the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR

A WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

AN ECONOMIST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

"Majestic . . . charged with physical danger, physical courage, and Winton's brand of rugged introspection."—The New York Review of Books

"Plunge into this novel and you, too, will be pulled under."—The Miami Herald

"Stunning in the depth of its audacity . . . limitlessly beautiful prose."—The Washington Post Book World

"Darkly exhilarating . . . a tautly gorgeous meditation on the inescapable human addiction to 'the monotony of drawing breath,' whether you want to or not."—The New York Times Book Review

"Both a hymn to the beauty of flying on water and a sober assessment of the costs of losing one’s balance, in every sense of the word."—The New Yorker

"A tender, incisive, sometimes brutal, and always moving coming-of-age novel . . . The prose is always astonishing, the descriptions of sea and weather especially vivid. . . . The book seems as simple, and as vital, as the act of breathing itself."—The Seattle Times

Jennifer Schuessler
darkly exhilarating…Winton, one of Australia's most acclaimed novelists, excels at conveying the shadowy side of his country's beauty, the way even the most ordinary landscape can exert a paralyzing hold …Winton's novel succeeds as a tautly gorgeous meditation on the inescapable human addiction to "the monotony of drawing breath," whether you want to or not.
—The New York Times
Carolyn See
[Winton's] produced 11 volumes of novels and short stories, but he lives in western Australia, one of the remotest parts of the world. People don't know about him. They don't know what they're missing…Most coming-of-age novels end on a note of triumph. But Breath is about moving out of your depth, getting in over your head, having your soul damaged beyond repair…But against all this pointless sorrow, there remains the evanescent beauty of the world, and Winton matches that with limitlessly beautiful prose.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Reviewed by David Maine

This slender book packs an emotional wallop. Two thrill-seeking boys, Bruce and Loonie, are young teenagers in smalltown Australia, circa the early 1970s. Their attraction is focused on the water-ponds, rivers, the sea-but they do little more than play around until they fall in with a mysterious, older man named Sando. He recognizes their daredevil wildness and takes it upon himself to teach them to surf. As the boys become more skilled, their exploits become more reckless; narrator Bruce (nicknamed "Pikelet") has doubts about where all this is heading, while the aptly named Loonie wants only bigger and bolder thrills. This mix of doubt and desire intensifies when the boys make a discovery about their mentor's past.

Surfing isn't the only dangerous game in town. As Sando's attentions and favor flip-flop from one boy to the other, the rivalry between the two, present from the beginning, grows stronger and more sinister. Sando's American wife, Eva, becomes more of a presence, too. She walks with a limp, has plenty of secrets of her own and becomes increasingly involved in Pikelet's life, in ways that even a 15-year-old might recognize as not entirely appropriate.

Winton's language, often terse, never showy, hovers convincingly between a teenager's inarticulateness and the staccato delivery of a grown man: "So there we were, this unlikely trio. A select and peculiar club, a tiny circle of friends, a cult, no less. Sando and his maniacal apprentices." The language manages to summon up both the uncertain teenager and the jaded adult: "It transpired that I was not, after all, immune to a dare," Pikelet tells us at one point, with both thebreathtaking unawareness of the boy and the irony of the man.

Told from the perspective of the narrator's present life as a paramedic, Breath aims to recapture a long-passed episode in a boy's life and show how this shaped the man he grew into. The story contemplates what it means to be less ordinary in an era when "extreme" sports hadn't even been recognized. (The fear of being ordinary is one of the terrors that drives these daredevils to push themselves ever further.) The author of 13 previous books, Winton is well-known in Australia and should be here. He touches upon important themes, of death, life, breathing and its absence, while looking dispassionately upon the relentless pursuit of thrills, pleasure, sex, status: the mundane obsessions of the ordinary and extraordinary alike.

David Maine is the author of Fallen; The Book of Samson; and, most recently, Monster, 1959.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Two boys, two boards, and a roiling surf. It might sound like heaven, but it doesn't work out that way in this engrossing new book from noteworthy Australian author Winton (Dirt Music). The narrator, Bruce Pike ("Pikelet"), is an awkward young teenager in the isolated coastal town of Sawyer when he befriends a troublemaker named Loonie. Riding the waves together (often at the expense of school), the two strike up a friendship with a freewheeling older man named Sando who, they eventually discover, was a surfing champion now living off the beaten path with an embittered American wife-herself a leading snowboarder waylaid by serious injury. The gurulike Sando leads the boys on to ever-riskier surfing venues, and when Bruce finally chickens out, he's left behind to launch a damaging affair with Sando's wife. The ending seems a bit rushed, as Bruce looks back over his derailed life, and why it got so badly derailed is not entirely convincing. But Winton is pitch perfect in capturing (but not exploiting) adolescent angst, and he describes surfing and the sea so thrillingly that even nonswimmers will want to plunge right in. For most collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/15/08.]
—Barbara Hoffert

School Library Journal

Adult/High School- This novel transforms the dangers of surfing and thrill-seeking into a powerful metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood. Bruce "Pikelet" Pike and his friend Loonie, both 12, are looking for a way of life different from what home and school offer them. Living in a small, working-class town on the west coast of Australia in the 1970s, they turn to surfing as their escape. At first, they manage little beyond paddling offshore on flimsy boards. But everything changes when they meet Sando, an aging hippie-guru with a love of sports and danger. He takes the boys under his wing, first by letting them store their boards at his home and later by encouraging them to chase after increasingly dangerous waves. Ordinary life becomes boring and colorless to the boys when compared to the magic they feel when blasting through the churning water. The surfing sequences are beautifully and excitingly described, giving an easy hook to an otherwise emotionally complicated novel. Jealousy enters the relationship when Sando takes Loonie on a surfing tour through the Pacific Islands, leaving Pikelet behind with Sando's bitter wife. The two bond through their pain at being left behind and question the place of thrill-seeking in their lives. Their friendship takes a sexual turn, making this novel best for more mature teens. Told as a retrospective tale, Winton's story mixes the frenetic excitement and confusion of adolescence with the perspective and wisdom of adulthood, making this book a unique reading experience.-Matthew L. Moffett, Pohick Regional Library, Burke, VA

Kirkus Reviews
Sun, surf and the '70s Down Under provide the backdrop for the story of a boy's awakening through rough sex. Paramedic Bruce Pike and his partner answer a medical emergency call at a suburban home. In a bedroom crowded with rock-star and hot-chick posters, Bruce finds the body of a 17-year-old boy who appears to have committed suicide. But Bruce, a middle-aged dad, knows better, and the narrative turns back to his adolescence to explain how he knows. Australian author Winton (The Turning: Stories, 2005, etc.) offers a tight narrative notable for its empathetic characters and effectively spare use of shock. Growing up in the tiny outback town of Sawyer, Bruce is besotted with swimming. His quiet, orderly parents don't dig his friendship with surf-and-diving whiz Loonie, a daredevil one year older than Bruce. Even less do they cotton to Sando, the hippie surf-stallion who becomes the boys' guru and guide to All Things Wild. Discovering that Sando had been a star of sorts at the sport of hanging ten, they worship him even more as he takes them farther out to higher and higher waves. Equally compelling, in a more fearsome way, is Sando's squeeze, blonde, scornful, tight-bodied Eva. She was once famous, too, the boys find out, a Snow Goddess skiing champ. As Loonie and Sando dangerously bond, Bruce falls for aloof Eva. Her tour of the mysteries of love includes introducing him to her dangerous fixation on auto-asphyxiation for maximum erotic kicks. So when paramedic Bruce examines the body of the 17-year-old suspected of killing himself, he blames thrill-gone-wrong sex. Bruce has been there, done that and emerged wiser, world-weary and chastened. Period details like Eva's Captain Beefheart andRavi Shankar records add verisimilitude, and Winton handles youthful angst like a hipper John Knowles. Lyricism empowers this stoner rite-of-passage saga, which also conveys a timeless pathos.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312428396
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 5/26/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 335,581
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.28 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

The preeminent Australian novelist of his generation, TIM WINTON is the author of the bestselling Cloudstreet, The Riders, and Dirt Music, among many other books. He lives in Western Australia.

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Read an Excerpt

We come sweeping up the tree-lined boulevard with siren and lights and when the GPS urges us to make the next left we take it so fast that all the gear slams and sways inside the vehicle. I don’t say a thing. Down the dark suburban street I can see the house lit like a cruise ship.

Got it, she says before I can point it out.

Feel free to slow down.

Making you nervous, Bruce?

Something like that, I murmur.

But the fact is I feel brilliant. This is when I feel good, when the nerve-ends are singing, the gut tight with anticipation. It’s been a long, slow shift and there’s never been any love lost between Jodie and me. At handover I walked up on a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. But that was hours ago. Now I’m alert and tingly with dread. Bring it on.

At the call address Jodie kills the siren and wheels around to reverse up the steep drive. She’s amped, I guess, and a bit puffed up with a sense of her own competence. Not a bad kid, just green. She doesn’t know it but I’ve got daughters her age.

When she hits the handbrake and calls in our arrival at the job I jump out and rip the side door back to grab the resus kit. Beneath the porch steps on the dewy grass is a middle-aged bloke hugging himself in silence and I can see in a moment that although he’s probably done his collarbone he’s not our man. So I leave him to Jodie and go on up to announce myself in the open doorway.

In the livingroom two teenage girls hunch at opposite ends of a leather couch.

Upstairs? I ask.

One of them points without even lifting her head, and already I know that this job’s become a pack and carry. Usually they see the uniform and light up with hope, but neither of them gives me as much as a glance.

The bedroom in question isn’t hard to fi nd. A little mat of vomit in the hall. Splinters of wood. I step over the broken-down door and see the mother at the bed where the boy is laid out, and as I quietly introduce myself I take it all in. The room smells of pot and urine and disinfectant and it’s clear that she’s cut him down and dressed him and tidied everything up.

I slip in beside her and do the business but the kid’s been gone a while. He looks about seventeen. There are ligature marks on his neck and older bruises around them. Even while I’m going through the motions she strokes the boy’s dark, curly hair. A nice-looking kid. She’s washed him. He smells of Pears soap and freshly laundered clothes. I ask for her name and for her son’s, and she tells me that she’s June and the boy’s name is Aaron.

I’m sorry, June, I murmur, but he’s passed away.

I know that.

You found him a while ago. Before you called.

She says nothing.

June, I’m not the police.

They’re already on their way.

Can I open the wardrobe? I ask as Jodie steps into the

doorway.

I’d prefer that you didn’t, says June.

Okay. But you know that the police will.

Do they have to?

The mother looks at me properly for the fi rst time. She’s a handsome woman in her forties with short, dark hair and arty pendant earrings, and I can imagine that an hour ago, when her lipstick and her life were still intact, she’d have been erect and confident, even a little haughty.

It’s their job, June.

You seem to have made some kind of . . . assumption.

June, I say, glancing up at Jodie. Let’s just say I’ve seen a few things in my time. Honestly, I couldn’t begin to tell you.

Then you’ll tell me how this happened, why he’s done this to himself.

I’ve called for another car, says Jodie.

Yeah, good, I mutter. June, this is Jodie. She’s my partner tonight.

Go ahead and tell me why.

Because your husband’s broken his collarbone, says Jodie. He broke down the door here, right?

So what do I tell them? the mother asks, ignoring Jodie altogether.

That’s really for you to decide, I say. But there’s no shame in the truth. It’s fairer on everybody.

The woman looks at me again. I squat in front of her beside the bed. She smooths the skirt down onto her knees.

I must be transparent, she murmurs.

I try to give her a kindly smile but my face feels stiff. Behind her I can see the usual posters on the wall: surfers, rockstars, women in provocative poses. The bookshelf above the desk has its sports trophies and souvenirs from Bali and the computer goes through a screensaver cycle of the twin towers endlessly falling. She reaches for my hand and I give it to her. She feels no warmer than her dead son.

No one will understand.

No, I say. Probably not.

You’re a father.

Yes, I am.

Car doors slam in the street below.

June, would you like a moment alone with Aaron before the

police come in?

I’ve had my moment, she says, letting go my hand to pat her

hair abstractedly.

Jodie? Will you just pop down and let the police know where we are?

Jodie folds her arms petulantly but goes with a flick of her little blonde ponytail.

That girl doesn’t like you.

No, not much.

So what do I do?

I can’t advise you, June.

I’ve got other children to consider.

Yes.

And a husband.

He will have to go to hospital, I’m afraid.

Lucky him.

I get to my feet and collect my kit. She stands and brushes her skirt down and gazes back at the boy on the bed.

Is there anyone else you’d like me to call?

Jodie and two cops appear at the door.

Call? says June. You can call my son back. As you can see, he’s not listening to his mother.

Excerpted from Breath by Tim Winton. Copyright © 2008 by Tim Winton. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 15, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    An Extraordinary Novel

    Sawyer, we are told, is a town on the coast of Western Australia that lies between the forest and the sea. But in Sawyer "you keep to the mill, the town, the river." Breath a novel by Tim Winton tells the story of a boy growing up in this town. But he manages a lot more than a bildungsroman, a "coming of age story"; he also explores the limits of risk.
    Bruce Pike meets with three extraordinary people and undergoes a series of experiences within this story that profoundly shape his life. The author shows how the desire first to conform and then to excel can shape a life. He also dives deeply into the concept of risk and what it means to an individual to take a risk.
    Over the last few years the idea of extreme sport has come into the public eye. This novel provides perhaps the best description of the allure of this type of activity that I have read. It is an immensely gripping novel and one of the few books that I have read in literally one sitting. It is commonplace to say "I could not put it down", but with this book I would have been damn annoyed to have had to lay it aside.
    The book contains sexual material and deals with the limits of sex in the same way that it discusses other limit and risks. It is clearly an adult novel. I found it to be a fine and a full book and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
    A copy of this book was provided free by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

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  • Posted August 13, 2009

    Breath by Tim Winton

    A well written, touching account of a young boys journey into manhood through his love of surfing. A very descriptive account of the beautiful coastline and surfing beaches of Western Australia. The author doesn't shy away from certain subject matter throughout the book, and it will make for very interesting discussions in many bookclubs. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

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  • Posted January 7, 2009

    Guaranteed to keep you holding your breath while reading

    Breath is a masterfully written tale of what it means to live in extremes; and since most of us, in our own ways, do, it¿s a tale about what it means to be alive.<BR/><BR/>I¿m ashamed to say that I only heard of Tim Winton when a blogger recently wrote that Saltwater Buddha reminded him of Winton¿s surf literature. I am now very honored to be mentioned in his company. <BR/><BR/>A novelist with a voice no one could copy, Winton¿s ability to be colloquial while employing phrases and vocabulary that make literary geeks froth is both entertaining and incredible. It took me 30 pages to get into Breath¿s subtle flow, the off-handed remarks, the Australian slang. But the narrative picks up speed as it goes and once in I scarcely wanted to put the book down. <BR/><BR/>I especially enjoyed the first half when the main character and his fearless best friend Loonie are bathing in the sheer magic of water and, as they get older, the pastime that will obsess them the rest of their lives: surfing. Winton deftly captures what it is to be a wide-eyed little grommet enamored with the water life: with pushing the limits of breath retention, with unbelievable fact that humans can ride pulses of saltwater, with learning the endless complexities of how weather affects the sea. <BR/><BR/>As their mentor Sando, an extraordinary older surfer who seems most motivated by his fear of the ordinary, pushes the two teens to confront their fears in sharky and death-defying surf, you feel the magic of childhood innocence slipping sadly away. But with each wave conquered you do feel something new and mysterious gurgling to the surface, something not unlike like air bubbles that might burst prematurely at any moment. The fear that they will bust into oblivion is what keeps you hanging on Winton¿s every word ¿ even through the novel¿s tougher parts.

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