This review may be somewhat biased, given that Winton is one of my favourite contemporary authors; but there’s good reason for his prominent standing among modern writers. Breath is yet another example of his amazing work.
The premise of the plot is deceptively simple: framed within the perspective of Bruce Pike’s adult viewpoint is the story of his wilder youth, in which he sought thrills in dangerous natural environments, and rebelled against the loneliness and hurt of society in ostensibly ‘deviant’ ways. Although he reflects on the insanity of some of his teenage antics, the plot never veers into moralistic piety, and is certainly more nostalgic and reminiscent than regretful.
Stylistically, Winton’s prose is typically sparse and occasionally disjointed, simultaneously conveying the harshness of the Australian landscape, the sea itself, and the tumultuous life of a teenage boy seeking to live an extraordinary life. The underuse of conventional grammar (if you hate Joyce, you may be rather annoyed) adds to the feel of the novel, creating a fast-paced tale that careens from present to past, skipping across time freely, and genuinely recreating the hectic feel of adolescence.
It’s interesting that Winton so aptly conveys the desparation of youth; Bruce tries desparately to establish his extraordinariness, to defy convention, and to live a meaningful and exciting life. However, given that this part of the story is framed within the perspective of adult-Bruce’s life, I think there’s a poignant message in it. The desire to be something brilliant, to burn brightly in the dull sea of mediocrity, never dies in those that feel the driving need to be something more than average.
It could be argued that he still seeks that thrill in the adrenaline-fueled work of being an ambulance officer, but the fact that he still surfs, despite the limitations of age and injury, more strongly suggest that even that capitulation is never enough. That in finding that compromise between thrill and what is considered conventionable/allowable, the brilliance is lost, and becomes little more than a new sense of safety. It’s the kind of need for something more that drives people to unspeakable despair through dissatisfaction.
Hmm, digressed a little there, but it’s hard not to, after reading such a passionate piece of writing. Overall rating: 10/10.