Breath, by Tim Winton

The lyricism of an author on a wave
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The Independent Culture

This epic surfing nov-el is framed inside a merciless portrayal of human stupidity and propensity for self-harm. But the two aren't quite synonymous. The problem for aficionados of big-wave surfing is what to do when there is no surf. The writer's problem is similar - what to do with these colourful characters in the lulls? John Milius in Big Wednesday could fall back on the Vietnam War. Point Break had Patrick Swayze robbing banks for kicks. Winton has his crew dreaming of self-asphyxiation.

Unlike just about everyone else, I thought Winton's early work wildly over-written. Like a Dylan Thomas poem transported to Western Australia and doing hard labour: lots of great vocabulary, but nothing much happening. In Breath, he has finally found an objective correlative, surfing, to carry his tough, visceral lyricism. Winton on a wave is irresistible.

The episodes concerned with the adolescent discovery and pursuit of surfing are gripping. His waves, the leisurely Point, Barney's (with its resident great white), monstrous Old Smoky and the freakish Nautilus are memorable characters. I suspect no one has written better about the pounding of huge surf, the lure of the tube, the gruelling paddle-out, the semi-suicidal submission to fate of the take-off, the shuddering, adrenalin-soaked bottom turn, or the underwater roller-coaster ride that is the wipeout.

There is something of the kid in Shane, admiring the lonely gun-slinger, in the first-person narrator's attitude towards Sando, the big-wave guru and style king. Pikelet and his best mate, Loonie, having earned their spurs holding their breath underwater, graduate to going with Sando into the kind of massive surf characteristic of the Margaret River area. Winton brilliantly evokes the masculine camaraderie and conflicts.

I remember discovering a box of 1960s surfing magazines on a wardrobe in Margaret River, guarded by a snake, whose key message was broadly monastic: surf or sex, you choose, but don't mix the two. Winton's serpent takes the form of Eva, a tortured freestyle skier, seen as responsible for just about everything that goes wrong. A thriller-like unfolding forbids me from revealing all, but there are a lot of dead bodies by the end. Even the opening chapter has a noose and an ambulance arriving too late.

Winton's ambivalent view of Australia warps in the direction of the deeply dystopian. Surfing is depicted as a prelude to sado-masochism. Yet there remains in this seductive, if harrowing, novel the lingering enchantment of a lost paradise.

Andy Martin's 'Stealing the Wave' is published by Bloomsbury