Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bloke's bloke of a writer details wisdom of truth

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HarperCollins, 224 pages, $27

Reviwed by Helen Falding

Tim Winton is an Aussie bloke's bloke of a writer.

If there's a movement afoot to get more adult men reading contemporary literature -- similar to the effort to improve the literacy of adolescent boys -- then Tim's your man.

In Breath, the latest novel from one of Australia's most prolific and celebrated fiction writers, readers stand safe on shore and watch teenager Bruce Pike surf waves and explore relationships that take him way beyond his depth and nearly break him.

It's a compelling and unsettling exploration of where the boredom of small-town life, adolescent bravado and surging testosterone can lead when they run head-on into the complicated needs of adults afraid of growing old and trying to re-create the thrills of their own youth.

"You're not gunna pike on me?" is a familiar taunt of Australian kids, and it must echo in poor Bruce's head every time anyone says his last name.

He's a slightly unusual 1970s boy in desperate search of a way to prove he's extraordinary. The easiest route is by accepting the dares of his troubled and also aptly-named buddy Ivan Loon.

They start by diving underwater until they almost pass out, move on to knife-throwing and eventually fall under the spell of bronzed and sun-bleached hippie surfer guru Sando and his bitter wife Eva, a former freestyle skier.

What the four of them have in common is an addiction to danger, in the days before extreme sports become a fad. But danger is a drug that requires ever closer brushes with death in the form of storm surges or sharks.

Once you're caught up in something more powerful than yourself such as a breaking wave, you can dance your way out or get spat out -- in either case, there's some relief when it's over.

The novel starts and ends with the adult Bruce -- nearing 50 and only now coming to terms with what he learned and lost in those early years that moulded him into a shape he can't seem to break out of.

He's not a self-help group kind of guy.

"I've bored people in bars and lost a marriage to silence. I don't want to join anybody's misery club, to be adopted as a fellow victim of whatever syndrome is doing the rounds this week," he tells us through Winton, who is after all not such a typical Aussie bloke. Because everything they can't say, he puts into words.

After publishing 20 books, Winton is a master at suspense and all those other English-lit techniques that make you want to skip lunch to find out what happens next.

Unlike Canadian women writers famous for exploring the inner worlds of characters with mundane lives, Australian novelists like Winton tend to write about vibrant, profane characters who live so large you get wrung out just reading about it.

Winton is best known for his novels Cloudstreet and Dirt Music -- about a restless fisherman's wife and a poacher -- which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Booker Prize in 2002.

For Canadian readers who don't live on the coast and know how to read the sea, the detailed descriptions of wave formations in Breath will be hard to follow.

But the wisdom imparted by the seasoned Bruce is more universally accessible.

"There's no shame in the truth. It's fairer on everyone," advises the man whose life was warped by a secret.

Helen Fallding is a Free Press assistant city editor with Australian roots.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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