Susanna Freymark - Between the Covers
How long can you hold your breath underwater? This folly binds Pikelet and Loonie as they compete to see who can stay the longest at the bottom of the river clinging to the roots of the trees. It is Loonie, every time, who pushes the boundaries and it is the 12-year-old Pike who is drawn along in this dangerous friendship. They are outlaws, desperate to test their own mortality and where feeling alive means surfing the biggest wave, swimming with the biggest shark or staying underwater to make their lungs as big as camel bladders.
This eighth book by Tim Winton is set in a familiar small town in Western Australia called Sawyer. Winton it seems is at his most comfortable here, in a tired township dominated by working class families.
It is the 50-year-old Bruce Pike, a paramedic, who tells this story. He is a lonely man looking back at the high jinks of his friend Loonie and his adventures with renowned surfer Sando and his wife Eva. Bruce ponders the meaning of it all, suggesting it may have been nothing more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath. It is the buzz of near death that drives them to seek new ways to feel fear.
Tim Winton is known for the punchy dialogue that brings his characters alive and is loved for his prosaic and tender descriptions of the land. In Breath he uses this talent to describe the ocean and its ever changing liquid landscape with an eloquence and beauty that made me re-read passages of the book.
Winton sets a high standard in writing and Breath is no exception. Yet he wraps things up too quickly while I am still out riding the waves with Loonie and Pikelet. His rush to wind up the story seems at odds with its themes of death and oblivion. Maybe this was deliberate on the authors part. Maybe once Pike had experimented with ways to wipe himself out, the tedium of life took over and there wasnt much more to say about Bruce Pike.
Its a sad and melancholic book despite its adrenalin rushing pages of death-defying acts; its sad because all the bravado leads nowhere. Yet it is a gripping story with a raw honesty that gives you an insight into the loneliness and futility of being human.
Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.