In Breath, the eighth novel by two-time Booker nominee, Winton transforms the dangers of surfing and thrill seeking into a powerful metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood. Bruce “Pikelet” Pike and his best friend Loonie are twelve-year-old boys 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 1970’s Australia, they turn to surfing as their ultimate escape.
At the beginning the two manage little beyond paddling offshore on flimsy boards. But everything changes when they meet Sando, an aging hippie-guru with a love for sports and danger. Sando takes the two boys under his wing, first by simply letting them store their boards at his Oceanside 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 exciting magic they feel when blasting through the churning surf. The surfing sequences are beautifully and excitingly describing, 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 Eva. Pikelet and Eva bond through their pain at being left behind and both question the place of thrill seeking in their lives. Their friendship takes an sexual turn that’s likely to make many readers uncomfortable, especially when the sex becomes as extreme and dangerous as surfing with Sando.
To be honest, I'm not sure what people will make of the sex. It kind of comes out of nowhere and seems slightly out of place with the story. I suspect the edgy ending, which is hinted at in an opening frame with Pikelet as an adult, was Winton's initial idea for the novel and the marvelous surfing sequences grew out of it. It works for me, in that both explore the idea of crossing boundaries and finding where your own personal limits are. But some readers I fear will be so shocked by the ending content they'll miss the point of Winton's otherwise pretty potent message.