As adolescents, Bruce Pike and Ivan Loon cause riverside panic by diving down deep and holding on to the tree roots a the bottom until their heads are full of stars and those above imagine they’ve drowned. At first, the troubled and reckless “Loonie” seems an unlikely friend for the quieter “Pikelet”, whose parents, like most locals, view nature with ambivalence. But each boy spurs on the other harder and further, connecting them to what later becomes a vital force in their lives: the need for extreme physical challenges—the more frightening, the more dangerous, the better.
Tired of the river, the boys find their way to the ocean and watch the surfers. Pikelet’s response is powerful: “How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.”
In time, the boys are befriended by Sando and his wife, hippie-types who live near the beach. When they discover Sando was once a famous competitive surfer, their admiration turns to hero worship. He instructs the boys in all aspects of surfing: reading the weather, shaping boards, determining currents and underwater topography. But he also takes them into dangerous waters, where waves are the size of buildings and sharks lurk.
The central theme of Tim Winton’s beautiful coming-of-age novel is as simple as it is elegant: Breath is like grace, you can’t live without it. Pikelet sees the ocean as a body, with swells that rise up like a body taking in air. He becomes addicted to the rush, being drawn in, churned over, pushed down and held there, his lungs and his courage and his manhood tested. When Loonie comes face to face with a shark, he says: “The eye was like a fucking hole in the universe.” The ocean and everything in it is poetry.
But sometimes the sea is flat and, while they wait for the storms that bring swells, the boys get involved with other things, not all of which are healthy. Sando has become a Guru figure, the boys cult members to be manipulated. His wife Eva, injured in a skiing accident and now embittered, has her own extreme pastimes. Damaged and self-interested, the older couple involve themselves in the boys’ lives in inappropriate, life-altering ways.
Pikelet becomes aware that what you love, what you are, can be snatched away at a moment’s notice. In late middle age, as a coda to the story of his adolescence, Bruce Pike sifts through events with adult eyes. For all their adventures, it isn’t nature—not the ocean nor the mountain—that destroys any of them; it’s the dark forces within.
Breath explores the complexities of relationships and the unexpected influences on a life. At the end of the novel, out on the water again, Pike feels “some spark of early promise” return to him “like a moment of grace”. It’s an important moment. While he acts as if no one sees or cares, his daughters are there on the shore, and maybe looking.