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!
8 thoughts on “Four time winner: Tim Winton wins 2009 Miles Franklin”
Oh yes, please do blog about Thea Astley – I have read some but not enough of hers, and would love to read some more about her.
I will soon. I did quite a bit of work on HER wikipedia page too – Jolley and Astley were two of my earlier edit enthusiasms (versus writing new pages). It is to my HUGE discredit that when I could have had Astley as a tutor at my university – used to see her in the halls – I didn’t choose to do Australian literature. What was I thinking?
Good to see you over on Claws!
Yes,a fan of Thea Astley, and Elizabeth Jolly. And also Amy Witting. It’s a long time since I read her work, but I remember being deeply moved: A Change in the Lighting stands out.
BTW just finished The Good Parents. So much in this book resonates with me (in that I’ve been there, done that: the utopian dreaming, the Buddhist retreats etc etc). I saw your comment on Claws, but in a way the focus for me was on the ‘Good’ Parents: Toni and Jacob, exploring their lives, and their reverberations into the present. As for Cy coming back at the end: I didn’t see that coming. A few minor quibbles: the coincidence of Andrew being at his father’s house and a few of the names for the characters seemed odd for the time, but this book is going to stay with me for a long time (I’m already wanting to read it again )… but will go today and buy Gilgamesh. How on earth have I missed this writer?
Thanks for the welcome Mary. I’ve only recently started looking at the Claws blog. Nice one to check up on. So glad there is at least one other Astley fan out there – she’s not popular which is a shame though I understand why. Not only is she a bit challenging at times but she’s a woman too!! A challenging woman writer has a hard road I think!
I have read a couple of Amy Wittings too – her first Isobel book and I think A change in the lighting. I like her too and would like to read her other ones.
Anyhow, I have also commented on The good parents in my blog: https://whisperinggums.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/joan-london-the-good-parents-spoilers/ As you can see, I did like it – just not quite as much as Gilgamesh. How have you missed her? So many books, too little time is probably the answer!
An ol’ Perth boy myself living in Los Angeles I revelled in this book . I have since passed on many copies of this book to many of my SoCal surfing buddies who also related but now long for that place that time…
Thankyou Tim …
Well thanks Andrew – and LOL re longings for the past. I think you are the first commenter on this post to actually engage with its main subject, Breath. You have lived/live in two favourite places of mine! I have lived in the SoCal area for three years and absolutely fell in love with it – more for the deserts than the beaches, but it is beautiful isn’t it. As for Perth, I’ve only made a few brief visits but it always appeals – and I think it has some similarities with SoCal, particularly climate-wise but also I suspect in terms of beauty of its landscape.
As per your recommendation I just finished this book. Winton’s writing is breath taking, especially in those heart stopping surfing scenes. But I was moved by the sadness and longing that pulls Pike throughout his narrative and the fact that he has a breakdown in adulthood moved the novel in a direction I had not anticipated but has special resonance for me at this point. Thank you for the suggestion! I will reflect on it in my own blog when I find the right approach. I’m definitely looking forward to more of his work and hearing him speak next month.
Oh, I’m so glad Rough Ghosts. Not everyone loves this book, but years on it has stuck with me for the same reasons you say – the writing and the characterisation of Pikelet. I’m glad it has inspired you to read more. I will watch out for your review which will be more fresh I’m sure than mine above written many months after I read it.