Combined Reviews: Breath by Tim Winton

breath.jpgReviews of Breath
Tim Winton
Hamish Hamilton
[This novel has been shortlisted for the Best Book award in the South East Asia and the Pacific region of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. It won the 2008 Age Book of the Year Award for Fiction.]

From the publisher's page:

More than once since then I've wondered whether the life-threatening high jinks that Loonie and I and Sando and Eva got up to in the years of my adolescence were anything more than a rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.

Breath is a story about the wildness of youth - the lust for excitement and terror, the determination to be extraordinary, the wounds that heal and those that don't - and about learning to live with its passing.

In his first novel for seven years, Tim Winton has achieved a new level of mastery. Breath confirms him as one of the world's finest storytellers, a writer of novels that are at the same time simple and profound, relentlessly gripping and deeply moving.


James Bradley in "The Age": "For, in many ways, it is the idea of damage - personal, psychic, physical - that Winton returns to time and again and it is this undercurrent of pain that lends his often fractured narratives their urgency and brooding power. Whether it is a girl with a finger lost in an accident in a story such as 'Abbreviation' or the shattered Luther in Dirt Music, almost to a one, Winton's characters are caught in a struggle with the fact of their pasts and more particularly with their own need to blot out or escape those pasts whether through drugs or drink or simply a retreat from the world around them and themselves... It's unlikely Winton has ever written as well as he writes in Breath, a book that marries the lyricism of work such as Cloudstreet to the adamantine hardness of the stories in The Turning. Time and again his descriptions of the ocean and the littoral break free of the page, revealing this landscape with a clarity and an intimacy that lets us see it anew."
Andy Martin in "The Independent": "Unlike just about everyone else, I thought Winton's early work wildly over-written. Like a Dylan Thomas poem transported to Western Australia and doing hard labour: lots of great vocabulary, but nothing much happening. In Breath, he has finally found an objective correlative, surfing, to carry his tough, visceral lyricism. Winton on a wave is irresistible."
Stephen Abell in "The Telegraph": "Reading Winton's latest novel, Breath, one begins to recognise that his prose is a small-town songline: the dirty, droning music of life in working-class Western Australia; the hum within the lives of people stranded in that 'strange and tough' part of the world."
Kathryn Crim in the "Los Angeles Times": "Winton often locates a transcendent wisdom in nature, letting it guide his analogies to time, space, longing and the sort of existential entrapment that comes from being born into a
particular place and culture. This is the recipe for his soaring popularity in his native Australia and also the reason he has garnered an international audience. In his best moments of controlled, evocative storytelling, though, Winton's descriptions eschew metaphor altogether and instead masterfully balance visual imagery with colloquial language. In Breath, the waves underpin the episodic narrative, whose most vivid moments occur at sea. It achieves that essential quality of a short novel: Its poetry becomes its imperative, its motivating and most risky venture."
Rónán McDonald in the "Times Literary Supplement": "Like Hardy's Wessex or Faulkner's Mississippi, the Western Australian landscape has been consecrated by Tim Winton's fiction. He has been garlanded with literary awards and acclaim in his native Australia, and has been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His work is preoccupied with wounded or troubled characters, often haunted by their past, who set out on actual or psychological journeys in search of purpose, meaning and redemption. Dirt Music (2002) depicts a vast, hostile outback in which the individual self is tiny and threatened. In Breath, the sea takes on a comparable role as an immense elemental force that simultaneously compels and controls the protagonists...While Breath deals with primal, mythic conflicts -- the clash of wilderness and civilization, self and society, youth and age -- it does not strain for epic effect."
Carolyn See in "The Washington Post": "Breath, Winton's latest novel, is stunning in the depth of its audacity. Because, when you think about it, breath is our relationship to the cosmos. We breathe in an iota of the universe, we breathe it out; without it, we die. But then why is there something in us that makes us want to hold our breath as kids until we pass out, or makes us just stop breathing while we're sleeping until our rattled partners shake us awake?"
John Repp in "The St Petersburg Times": "Despite its flaws, Breath should enhance Winton's American reputation. It's a fast read that digs deep, proving once again that in the hands of a skilled writer, the metamorphosis from child to adult can yield fresh iscoveries."
Stephanie Johnson in "The New Zealand Herald": "Breath's characters and story hang in the reader's mind for days after finishing. Strangely and beautifully, it resonates more as a lengthy poem rather than a novel, perhaps because the notion behind it is so metaphorical and profound: breath and the fear of losing it. This is despite the voice not being particularly poetic and the sometimes heavy-handed Australianisms."
Ian Mcgillis in "The Calgary Herald": "In a novel whose characters are compelled to test the limits of the flesh, much depends on Winton being able to convey some of that rush, and he does."
Darryl Whetter in "The Vancouver Sun": "For all its mid-sized accuracies, Breath doesn't fully transcend surfing or its protagonist to make a lasting, universal statement...One consequence is the mixed blessing of the novel's close, a slippery dénouement in which intelligent emotional confessions are made but too many years and crises slide by too quickly. In short, we see little connection between the adolescent surfer who risks his life in one spot but not another, who is loyal in some ways but not others, and the articulate but distant adult he becomes."
Robert Wiersema in "The Ottawa Citizen": "We book reviewers, as a rule, like to keep some professional distance in our writing. Sometimes, though, with certain books or authors, one wants to simply rave, the way one might in a
bar or a coffee-shop, sitting with fellow book-lovers. In that spirit, reader to reader, let me say this: you've gotta read Tim Winton...An Australian export, Winton is, without exaggeration, one of the most formidable voices in contemporary writing. Twice nominated for the Booker Prize, with a world-wide readership and almost universal critical acclaim, Winton has 20 books to his credit, every one of them unique and surprising...Winton writes with a stunning, simple clarity. Largely plain-spoken and emotionally direct, the novel shifts into an elevated prose during moments of risk and beauty, and particularly those times when the two combine. The characters are carefully drawn, and reveal themselves slowly over the course of the novel...Breath is powerful and enthralling. It will make many readers uncomfortable, but that, in some ways, is its greatest strength."
"The Free Lance-Star": "Winton's descriptions are almost always sure-handed, but his grasp and description of the surfing scenes in the book give a scary feel to catching waves or for waves catching the surfers...Breath is a slender little novel but a good introduction into Winton, though not nearly as nuanced or ambitious as his best-known Cloudstreet. Breath shows off what Winton does best -- he doesn't bore, he doesn't philosophize, he just digs deep enough to expose the people he has created, who bear a striking resemblance to the humanity around us."
"Blogcritics" magazine: "Long ago, Freud introduced the concept of thanatos, the so-called death instinct. Many have dismissed or even ridiculed this notion, so un-Darwinian in its nature. How can we have a death instinct, when all instinctual drives seem based on preserving and extending life? Yet Winton shows even more persuasively in story form what Freud tried to outline in theory. Winton's characters reveal a barely hidden passion for non-existence, and death lingers at the fringes of almost every scene in this penetrating novel."
"HeraldTribune": "The book's central metaphor of breathing, that most essential function for life, works its way through many aspects of the novel and the characters who people it. Although the beauty and danger of surfing stand at its center, Breath expands far beyond the sea to the base instincts and involuntary actions that keep us alive. What it means to go beyond the involuntary, to challenge one's very soul, is at the heart of the matter."
Bradley Winterton in the "Tapei Times": "Winton is clearly pushing the boundaries of the dangerous sports genre to include, despite the everywhere laconic style, some questioning thoughts. His conclusions are usually ambivalent, and indeed ambiguity characterizes his attitudes in other spheres as well...So -- pro or anti surfing in possibly lethal situations? Pro or anti teenage drug use? Pro or anti the outer reaches of sexual experimentation? Winton offers a sphinx-like stare, and his final position on all these issues remains a fascinating, but to the last undivulged, secret."

Short notices

"Otago Daily Times": "I read less Australian fiction than I should, but this 40-something chap once again had me spellbound, reading Breath over the breakfast table, on the bus, way too late at night, finishing it on the second day...Winton writes with a sense of passion and authenticity that even a non-surfer like me can appreciate, bringing to the page the redemptive beauty of the sport."
"The New Yorker" on Breath:"Winton's latest novel is both a hymn to the beauty of flying on water and a sober assessment of the costs of losing one's balance, in every sense of the word."
"Words and Flavours weblog: "Can breathing be more than a requirement for life and become an addiction? In Breath, Tim Winton plays on our attachment to that fundamental action to explore his characters' addictions to the extreme and the dangerous."
The novel made "Seth's Notable List" for 2008: "The more time that goes by since my reading this book -- back in July -- the more I realize that it's really staying with me."


Aida Edemariam in "The Guardian".
Lisa Wrenn in "PopMatters".
Jane Sullivan in "The Age".

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 2, 2009 2:56 PM.

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