Main image
5th August
2009
written by Steph

Isn't that cover gorgeous?

Several years ago, my real-life bookclub selected Cloudstreet from a series of Australian novels as our next read.  I don’t remember a whole lot about the book, to be honest, though I do remember being equal parts amused and flummoxed by the inundation of Australian slang.  Today I would say the book painted a vivid portrait of families in Australia and the Aussie mentality, and Winton isn’t afraid of getting down into the dirty underbelly of working-class families and the hands Fate deals us.  I didn’t blog back then, but I did jot down a few notes about each book I read in my Excel spreadsheet, so here’s what I thought of Cloudstreet at the time:
Took me much longer to finish than it should have; was not a difficult read despite the reviews; characters were compelling at times, but overall I didn't feel that I learned or took anything from this book, and none of the characters were all that vivid to me; do see the somewhat hopeless yet hopeful aspects to the family, I don't necessarily get why we're supposed to care about them... also what was with the serial killer plotline? 3 out of 5.
Hmmm… apparently with time, my appraisal of Cloudstreet has somewhat softened, as that review doesn’t sound all that positive.  Perhaps it’s for the best I didn’t revisit that review before purchasing a few more Winton volumes on my recent trip to the used bookstore!  My line of thinking had essentially been, “Tim Winton!  I’ve read a book by him… Cloudstreet was alright, and I do want to read some more Australian fiction.  Why not give these a go?  They’re cheap!  Done!”  And that is how I came to own copies of Breath and The Riders. How I came to actually read Breath is a different story, but not really all that complicated either.  Sometimes I finish a book and have no idea what I want to read next.  I just want to dive into a great story and let it take me away.  Given how voluminous my TBR pile is, I can sometimes find it daunting to pick a new book since I tend to want to read them all right then!  In times like that, I find it can be really helpful to not overthink but to just pick up a book and start reading.  The genius with Breath is that it was a relatively slender volume (so not intimidating), and I also didn’t know anything at all about what it was about so there was nothing to overthink.  I just had to jump in feet first and hope for the best! I spent some time treading water with Breath, but it wasn’t long before I soon became immersed and enthralled by the story.  It starts off with a frantic paramedics visit to a home where a boy has appeared to have hanged himself.  One paramedic chalks it up to suicide, but the other one isn’t so sure… the encounter catapults him back into a lengthy recollection of his youth, and it is this story of Pikelet’s formative years that makes up the bulk of the novel.  It’s a coming of age story to be sure, but the unexpected element for me (and the one that surprised me most by utterly captivating me) was the massive surfing element.  Because Pikelet and his best friend Loonie LOVE to surf, and much of the action for the first half of the novel revolves around their surfing escapades.  Sure there’s a relationship with a surf-master guru who takes them under his wing that begins to turn everything on its head, but for the most part the plot circles around catching some waves. I love the beach and like swimming, but I’ve never surfed (I had a few ill-fated attempts at waterskiing when younger) and am terrified of sharks.  So if I had heard in advance that this was a book about surfing, I probably never would have picked it up because few things could sound more snooze-worthy to me.  Maybe carpentry.  Or building ships in bottles.  But that’s neither here nor there, because I didn’t realize the book was going to be so surf-heavy until I was already knee-deep into the novel, and the water was nice where I was standing.  So I plunged on… and I found it exhilarating.  Winton totally ensnared me in his loving and breathtaking descriptions of the ocean and Pikelet’s wave-walking tendencies.  He made it sound so joyous, so freeing, so exciting, that I discovered there was a part of me that kind of yearns to surf (not like that’s going to happen in the landlocked state that is Tennessee!).  Who knew?  I sure didn’t!  Rather than being bored, I was inspired and completely captivated.  Whereas Cloudstreet took me something like 6 weeks to finish, I devoured the 224 pages of Breath in a single evening.  Forgive the pun, but parts of it completely left me breathless. That’s not to say it’s a perfect novel.  It isn’t.  The bulk of it is very good, not just from a plot-perspective but in terms of the themes Winton explores.  I really enjoyed the way he uses surfing to examine the idea of obsession and finding the thrill in everyday life, the thing that makes it worthwhile to get up in the morning.  The concept of breathing, learning how to do it, how it sustains us, and yet for some breathing alone is not enough, some people are destined for me… it’s all really good stuff.  For all the things I couldn't relate to despite my desires (i.e., all the surf talk), Breath contains all the stuff the best growing up tales do - figuring out who you are, the agonies of adolescence, forming friendships while other ones end.  No matter your place in the world, everyone will find something to connect with as Pikelet moves from boy to man.  But the last quarter of the book sort of gets of track.  Thematically it makes sense where Winton takes us, it’s the ultimate extension of everything he’s been talking about and helps connect the story’s end to the beginning, putting everything in perspective.  But it’s so dark and it’s so extreme… I felt the novel didn’t need to go to the place he took it, and I wished it hadn’t.  When it was all said and done, I was very conflicted, because I had loved the first ¾ of the book SO much, and then the ending was SO fraught and weird.  Again, I got how it all tied together, it certainly makes sense (ironically) in light of the title of the book… and yet I couldn’t get over the ickiness of it.  Ickiness that no matter how much it made sense and conceptually continued the ideas put forth early on, just felt unnecessary.  Sure Winton could take it there, but not everything has to be done in extremes! So the end was a letdown, but I wouldn’t say it made me regret the novel, just knocked it down a few pegs in my overall estimation.  Up until the point where everything seems to skid off the rails (if you read the book you’ll know when this happens), I really cherished Breath.  It was so ebullient and a wonderful tribute to life and youth and feeling alive.  And the language was evocative and powerful (I think Winton is at his best when he’s describing the ocean and surfing), even if it was littered with tons of slang and idioms that no one outside of Australia would ever get.  It didn’t matter, because the writing and the story were a wonderful thing to drown in.  If I could just re-read the first 170 pages of the novel or so, that would be great.  Instead, I’ll go looking for another Winton novel that captures that spirit, that yearning, sparkling with such joie de vivre, and hope I eventually find it.  If you read Cloudstreet and felt let down, I do recommend you try Breath and see if that works better for you (but borrow it from the library).  I recommend it even with the caveat that the last 50 pages are kind of bunk; they disappoint, yes, but the rest of the book is so strong it would be a shame to miss out on it.
I couldn't have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day.  How strange it was to see men do something beautiful.  Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared... For all those years when Loonie and I surfed together, having caught the bug that first morning at the Point, we never spoke about the business of beauty.  We were mates but there were places our conversation simply couldn't go... We talked about skill and courage and luck - we shared all that, and in time we surfed to fool with death - but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

7 Comments

  1. It sounds as though we shared our opinion of Cloudstreet and it doesn’t sound as though this one is much better. I’m sure I’ll read it at some point, but I think I’ve read enough Tim Winton this year!

  2. 08/05/2009

    @ Jackie: Despite the bummer of an ending with Breath, I think I did like it more than Cloudstreet. I don’t recall ever feeling uplifted and exhilarated by the writing or any part of Cloudstreet (the whole serial killer storyline totally escaped me until I read that note!), but I did with Breath.

    I have one more Winton already on my shelf, so I know I will read that at some point… but whether it will be this year, remains to be seen!

  3. 08/05/2009

    I knew a little bit about the plentiful surfing in this book, and had some idea that the ending was provocative, but you make it sound much more beautiful and evocative than I had imagined. Although the ending was a bit disappointing, I am more interested in the rest of the book because it sounds like it had really great atmosphere. Great review! I am going to be grabbing a copy of this when I can.

  4. 08/06/2009

    Hey Steph, that’s exactly how I feel about Winton/Breath.
    1. Not a particularly good experience with Cloudstreet – a cousin gave me her copy, but I never felt compelled to read it
    2. Absolutely despised the ending – actually, I just despised Eva, full stop – but the rest of it left me breathless (har har).

    But it’s funny how I don’t recall seeing much slang in Breath.

  5. 08/06/2009

    @ zibilee: Yeah, who would have guessed the surfing would be so exhilarating? It’s not the first book Winton has written that has a large surf element, if I’m not mistaken, so clearly the man knows what he’s doing. As a non-surfer, I think it’s saying something for me to want to just read the surf parts again! 😉
     
    @ Tuesday(!): Maybe the slang was more noticeable to me simply because I’m not from Australia? It might not have had as much as Cloudstreet, but it was definitely there… I didn’t find it intrusive though.
    Love your pun about being left breathless by everything until the ending… WHY did it have to go to that place? So unnecessary!
    As for Cloudstreet – I don’t regret having read it, but based on the notes I jotted after the fact, I’m not sure it’s one I should revisit.

  6. 01/19/2012

    Perfect, Steph! You really captured what I felt about the book. I thought it was absolutely brilliant and loved how evocative it was of youth and trying to find your place in the world and the whole surfing thing was magical — and I’m not a great fan of dipping myself in the ocean. Yet… the last bit was, as you say, icky and kind of let it down. But it was also, in some ways, perfect, because it tied the first chapter to the narrative. The ending, though, was a bit rushed — I was left thinking, is that it?

  7. Ooh, you and Kim have me intrigued by Breath… Love your water imagery!

    I read Cloudstreet this month and I enjoyed it. I agree though that the characterisation wasn’t vivid enough and I never fully engaged with the characters. As for the serial killer storyline, it was a bit left-field but I figured (and verified) that it was for historical authenticity and is probably very much a historical marker in Perth much as Son of Sam and the Zodiac Killer have cultural significance in the US (and apparently outside it!)

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