Hamish Hamilton, $45 hb, 216 pp, 9780241015308
One of the intriguing things about Breath, Tim Winton’s first novel in seven years, is that it has a number of affinities with his very first book, An Open Swimmer (1982). Both are coming-of-age novels that attempt to capture some of the confusion and melancholy of youth. Both feature boyhood friendships which the characters outgrow. In both, the main protagonist, whose parents are emotionally distant, is drawn to a mystically inclined father-figure. And both novels have scenes in which an older woman makes sexual advances toward the young hero, with threatening overtones, although An Open Swimmer is coy on this point.
There are also, as you would expect, significant differences between Winton’s precocious but rough-hewn début and the mature, polished work that is Breath. In An Open Swimmer, Jerra Nilsam and his friend Sean are facing the choices and responsibilities of early adulthood; the narrator of Breath, Bruce ‘Pikelet’ Pike and his mate Loonie are in their mid-teens. The father-figure is not a grizzled hermit who smokes pages from his Bible, but a former professional surfer named Sando, who instructs the boys on the finer points of his sport and is given to lecturing them about its deeper meaning.