• Breath
  • Breath


4.7 4
by Tim Winton

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Tim Winton is Australia's best-loved novelist. His new work,Breath, is an extraordinary evocation of an adolescence spent resisting complacency, testing one's limits against nature, finding like-minded souls, and discovering just how far one breath will take you. It's a story of extremes--extreme sports and extreme emotions.

On the wild, lonely coast of

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Tim Winton is Australia's best-loved novelist. His new work,Breath, is an extraordinary evocation of an adolescence spent resisting complacency, testing one's limits against nature, finding like-minded souls, and discovering just how far one breath will take you. It's a story of extremes--extreme sports and extreme emotions.

On the wild, lonely coast of Western Australia, two thrillseeking and barely adolescent boys fall into the enigmatic thrall of veteran big-wave surfer Sando. Together they form an odd but elite trio. The grown man initiates the boys into a kind of Spartan ethos, a regimen of risk and challenge, where they test themselves in storm swells on remote and shark-infested reefs, pushing each other to the edges of endurance, courage, and sanity. But where is all this heading? Why is their mentor's past such forbidden territory? And what can explain his American wife's peculiar behavior? Venturing beyond all limits--in relationships, in physical challenge, and in sexual behavior--there is a point where oblivion is the only outcome. Full of Winton's lyrical genius for conveying physical sensation, Breath is a rich and atmospheric coming-of-age tale from one of world literature's finest storytellers.

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Editorial Reviews

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
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
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

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.36(h) x 0.83(d)
Age Range:
16 - 18 Years

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


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.


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. Published in May 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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