Well, it’s finally happened as I knew it must. Someone has equalled Thea Astley’s record number of four Miles Franklin Award wins as tonight Tim Winton was announced the 2009 winner with Breath. I was seriously considering making Thea Astley my third favourite writers post – I think this means that I will now have to.
Winton has won the award for Shallows (1984), Cloudstreet (1991), Dirt Music (2001) and now Breath (2009); and Astley for The Well Dressed Explorer (1962), The Slow Natives (1965), The Acolyte (1972) and Drylands (1999). Both writers are great stylists who use metaphor well, both tend to explore strong connections between character and landscape, and both are indubitably Australian! I think, however, that Astley’s pen ranged wider than Winton’s and she took more risks. That’s not to say that Winton doesn’t deserve his wins but I do think that Astley (she died in 2004) was and continues to be undervalued.
Anyhow, here is a brief recap of my thoughts on Breath which I read long before I started writing this blog. I’ll start with a quick plot summary just in case there’s someone out there who doesn’t know it! It is a first person, coming of age story told by Bruce “Pikelet” Pike. It starts with his boyhood friendship with Ivan “Loonie” Loon. As young boys, they dare each other to perform dangerous stunts in the local river, and then as teenagers, they take up surfing where they are encouraged into new levels of recklessness by a former professional surfer named Sando. As time passes, Pikelet’s friendship with Sando and Loonie disintegrates and is replaced by a rather equally scary relationship with Sando’s American wife Eva, an injured and therefore ex-skier.
I like the book. I like the way he sustains the “breath” metaphor throughout to represent various facets of life and life-giving (or life-taking) forces. Despite not being a surfer, I love his wonderfully visceral descriptions of surfing. I also like his exploration of the imperative to take risks that is so common in young men and that is often accompanied by a drive to “be someone”.
Related I suppose to the coming-of-age issue is the theme of learning to accept being ordinary. After Sando and Loonie leave the first time, Pikelet goes out and surfs Old Smoky: the first time he does it he’s so successful he feels he’s not ordinary, but then in his overconfidence he does it again and nearly does himself in…this is the beginning of his changing point of view. As he says a little later when he reviews his relationship with Eva, “No, Eva was not ordinary. And neither was the form of consolation she preferred. Given my time over I would not do it all again”. In other words, while he had originally equated not being ordinary with doing big risky things, with courting fear, by the end of the novel he realises that life is “a tough gig” and is about more than courting fear and taking big risks. This doesn’t mean that he can’t do and enjoy a job that provides an andrenalin rush (paramedic/ambulance driver) but it does mean that he no longer seeks to be anything other than himself and that he now goes for an adrenaline rush in “safer” more acceptable ways.
Before he gets to this point, though, he has to come to terms with his Eva experience and with the fact that he spent a big part of his life blaming her for his problems. He eventually comes to the conclusion that “people are fools, not monsters”. This closely resembles my own world-view: that is, that mostly (there are obvious exceptions) when people do the wrong thing they do it, at best, from the best of intentions, or, at worst, for reasons of laziness, selfishness or just plain obliviousness.
There’s no neat ending or pat conclusion: Pikelet recognises that he has been damaged by his life experiences and that he needs to manage himself – but he still loves to surf, that is, to do something “pointless and beautiful”. In this sense it is very much a book of its post-modern age: the lesson almost is that there is no lesson, that each of us has to find our own way. Pikelet says to Sando “maybe ordinary’s not so bad”. As one who is rather ordinary herself, I concur!