Breath (novel)

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First edition
AuthorTim Winton
PublisherHamish Hamilton, Australia
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback)
Preceded byDirt Music 

Breath is the twentieth book and the eighth novel by Australian author Tim Winton. His first novel in seven years, it was published in 2008, in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US, Canada, the Netherlands and Germany.[1]

Plot introduction[edit]

The novel is set in a small Western Australian logging village named Sawyer, near the fictional coastal town of Angelus, which has featured in several of Winton's works, including Shallows and The Turning. It is narrated by Bruce "Pikelet" Pike, a divorced, middle-aged paramedic and takes the form of a long flashback in which he remembers his childhood friendship with Loonie. The main action of the novel takes place in the 1970s.

Plot summary[edit]

The narrator, Bruce "Pikelet" Pike recounts his boyhood friendship with Ivan "Loonie" Loon. They first meet when eleven-year-old Pikelet stumbles across Loonie pretending to drown in a river in order to frighten a young family sitting nearby. The boy's bond over their love for dangerous stunts, regardless of being the polar opposites of each other. They form a tight friendship and spend the majority of their time together, despite going to different schools. The two boys witness a group of young men surfing a gigantic wave and are inspired to pick-up surfing as a hobby. They then meet a professional surfer named Bill "Sando" Sanderson, who encourages them to pursue this ambition and offers to teach them both how to surf. The trio bond quickly and the boys are constantly over at Sando's house, which is a treehouse in the middle of the Australian bush, shared by Sando's American wife Eva Sanderson.

After teaching them the basics, Sando quickly encourages the two now-teenage boys to attempt extremely dangerous stunts in the ocean, although he's aware of how irresponsible his behavior is and pointedly uses his strong influence over the boy's to manipulate them. At first, Pikelet has plenty of fun with the others, though he soon becomes tired of how Sando would constantly put Loonie and himself against each other - and how the older man showed favoritism towards Loonie. The two boy's friendship becomes toxic when Loonie breaks a bone and is unable to join the others for another infamous stunt, causing him to become jealous of Pikelet and treat him with increasing hostility. The final straw is when Sando invites Loonie on a trip to Indonesia with him, but purposely excludes Pikelet. This puts a heavy strain on Pikelet and Loonie's already broken friendship, ruining it forever.

While the others are gone, Pikelet finds comfort in Eva and discovers that she was an elite skier whose career came to an abrupt halt after she crippled one of her legs. Eva is psychologically-tortured by watching her husband continue to do what he loved every day while she is forced to wither away. The two eventually form a sexual relationship, reveling in each other's pain and seeking vengeance on their loved ones, unbeknownst to Sando and Loonie. Sometime before the other two return from overseas, Pikelet takes it upon himself to surf a wave he had been too afraid to attempt whilst with the others. Once back in Australia, Sando hears of Pikelet's actions from another surfer and congratulates Pikelet. Loonie finds out too and asks Pikelet begrudgingly if it's true, to which Pikelet confirms that it is. Pikelet then realizes that their friendship was over and watches the now sixteen-year-old Loonie walk away without saying goodbye, not knowing that he would never see Loonie again.

Sando later informs Pikelet that Eva is pregnant and that they are moving back to the United States to raise the baby, however, the baby is, in fact, Pikelets. The Sanderson's leave while Loonie flees back to Indonesia. Years later, Pikelet finds out that Eva Sanderson committed suicide shortly after her child was born, and that around the same time Loonie was murdered in a bar after a drug deal gone wrong.

As Pikelet reflects on his time with the Sanderson's and Loonie, he admits that surfing was the only activity he could do without any reason and that the sport was still dear to his heart even after all those years.


  • Bruce "Pikelet" Pike
  • Ivan "Loonie" Loon
  • Bill "Sando" Sanderson
  • Eva Sanderson


Reviewer Cathleen Schine describes Winton as "a writer who values themes, a practitioner of what might be called the school of Macho Romanticism, or perhaps better, Heroic Sensitivity".[2] She writes that Winton's characters "tend to flirt with death, long for death, while at the same time bravely suffering physical hardship in order to escape death".[2] In a somewhat similar vein, Aida Edemariam contrasts Winton to Hemingway, writing that in Winton "Land and sea are too implacable for such [ie Hemingway's] triumphalism, too capable of the sudden knock-out blow" and she goes on to say that "Winton's books are stalked by the possibility of the fatal undertow, on sea, on land, emotionally; by the knowledge of how fragile the strongest bodies, the bravest minds, can be".[3]

It is a book about risk,[2] about finding a balance between being extraordinary and ordinary. The imagery Winton uses to explore these concepts is that of "breathing and gasping for breath".[4] The boys' friendship is established through their daring each other to hold their breath under water, but breath also appears in other forms in the novel: in Pikelet's father's snoring, in the loss of breath when being knocked over in the surf, in games that toy with asphyxiation, and in the resuscitation that is crucial to Pike's work as a paramedic. In Winton's conception, the very ordinary act of breathing can take on a grandeur when associated with "the ecstasy and brief transcendence vouchsafed to those who challenge seas".[4]

Andrew Riemer, in his review, suggests than "Thomas Mann dealt with the same paradox, the same tragic dilemma of beauty and destruction, in Death in Venice, though from a very different perspective. Winton's book belongs, I think, to the same tradition, though in place of Mann's typically European immersion in high culture, Winton articulates his concerns in an almost unsullied Australian vernacular."[4]

Canadian reviewer Ian McGillis, on the other hand, compares Winton with Ian McEwan, writing that "Breath shares with Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach that sense of a good if compromised life lived in the aftermath of decisions made without adequate preparation."[5] He writes "that the choices he [Bruce Pike] made in youth will follow him, for better or worse, to the grave" and that Winton does not offer any easy solutions but rather leaves "the reader to ponder the implications".[5]


In an interview with Aida Edemariam, of The Guardian, Winton says about surfing

"I can afford to blow the morning off and go for a surf. I think, 'oh god, I'm nearly 50, you know? If I can get another 10 or 15 years of surfing - that's fine. I've worked hard, I tell myself, as I'm throwing the board in the car. I owe it to myself. A bit of water over the gills. That's my reward. I'm happier. In the same way I did when I was a teenager. Going down to the sea in anguish and turmoil and bewilderment, pubescent eruption, then coming home blissed out and happy. At one with the world."[3]

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Breath featured as the Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4 from 23 June to 4 July 2008.

The Publishers Weekly Signature review by David Maine praises Breath: "This slender book packs an emotional wallop."[6]

Film Adaptation[edit]

Filming of Breath began in April 2016. Australian actor and The Mentalist star Simon Baker directed the production,[7] producer Mark Johnson having teamed to acquire feature rights to the novel. Baker also starred in the movie, which was released in 2017.[8]

Awards and nominations[edit]


  1. ^ Jenny Darling Associates Breath Archived 18 September 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ a b c Schine, Cathleen (2008), "Walking on Water" (Review), The New York Review of Books.
  3. ^ a b Edemariam, Aida (2008), "Waiting for the new wave: Aida Edemariam talks to Tim Winton about his youth, Australia and why writing is like surfing", The Guardian, 28 June 2008.
  4. ^ a b c Riemer, Andrew (2008), "Breath", The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 2008.
  5. ^ a b McGillis, Ian (2008), "Testing the limits of the flesh", The Gazette, 31 August 2008. Archived 5 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ Publishers Weekly, Volume 255, Issue 14, p. 40, 7 April 2008.
  7. ^ "Simon Baker to produce and direct film adaptation of Tim Winton's novel Breath". Daily Telegraph. 11 April 2016. Retrieved 8 February 2017.
  8. ^ Maddox, Garry (12 April 2016). "Elizabeth Debicki, Richard Roxburgh join cast of Simon Baker's film Breath". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 February 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d "Tim Winton Author Bio". Booktopia. Retrieved 8 February 2017.
  10. ^ "Miles Franklin Literary Award - Every Winner Since 1957". Better Reading. Retrieved 8 February 2017.

External links[edit]