Friday, June 5, 2009

Completely Pointless and Beautiful

That's Tim Winton's description of surfing in his new novel Breath. I hadn't intended to read another coming-of-age novel so soon but I happened to see Winton's book on the New Fiction shelf at the library and remembered enjoying his “Cloudstreet” long ago. Winton is an Australian, and the main story, told in flashback, takes place in the small town of Sawyer in western Australia in the late 60's. Eleven year old Bruce Pike (“Pikelet”) and his twelve year old friend Ivan Loon (“Loonie”) have little in common, but they share a love of adventure in the forests and rivers of Sawyer. One favorite pastime is diving to the bottom of the river and holding their breath as long as possible. (“We scared people, pushing each other harder and further until often as not we scared ourselves”.), This is the first and most obvious reference to the title, but the notion of breath plays out in more dangerous ways as the story progresses.

The ocean is only a short distance from their mill town, but Pikelet's parents are afraid of it and Loonie's father, who owns a bar, is oblivious to it. But the ocean is a seductive presence for the adventurous boys, especially when they discover surfing. And even more seductive is Sando, a veteran international surfer who lives by the ocean and surfs with a grace and passion that the boys admire. They become his acolytes. Initially he is their teacher and guru, but gradually he begins to push them to surf in riskier and riskier situations. At the same time his wife Eva makes it clear that she can barely tolerate their presence.

I loved Winton's spare but lyrical descriptions of the exciting, harrowing thrills of surfing, as well as its beauty. It's easy to see why the lonely boys were so quickly addicted to it. But what happens when a boy is seduced by the attentions of powerful adults? When he is convinced that taking risks is the key to becoming extraordinary? That's the question Winton tackles. The two boys discover different answers, but both are powerfully and permanently affected by their childhood experiences.

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