Thoughts on 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award winner Breath, by Tim Winton

breathBreath, Tim Winton, Penguin, 9780143009580 (Aus, US)

Breath is my first Tim Winton. Yes, I know. He’s just not someone I had gotten to yet. And yes, I will read Cloudstreet, eventually. Last week, Breath was awarded our nation’s most prestigious literary prize – the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which is for books that in some way present aspects of Australian life. Winton gave an amazing speech, which you can view here, championing the Territorial Copyright laws which are currently under threat by the Productivity Commission. If you’re interested in protecting Australian writers, publishers, culture and ideas, you should really have a listen, and read more about the whole debacle. (We have reported on it extensively in the Weekly Book Newsletter – most of these articles are publicly available).

I had been rooting for The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, a bold book that I love and champion. Now I have finished Breath – a haunting and beautiful, well-rounded, atmospheric coming-of-age novel. I still prefer The Slap, as it challenged me more, made me feel impassioned and awake as a reader and person, but Breath is a truly enjoyable novel. I was enthralled by the world Winton paints – the adolescent curiosities, admirations, desires; the frightening and spellbinding ocean and the danger and peace of surfing, diving, living for passion.

I felt melancholy, much of the time, reading it – perhaps even from knowing (due to the structure) that the character was older and all the events are expressed as loss, as past, memory, history. I experienced nostalgia for a time I wasn’t born in, but this is not uncommon for me. I have written about the 70s, and I have written about the coast (being a Coffs Harbour girl). I feel some kind of affinity for a time that was less rule-bound and determined that my own generation’s, and this is something that Winton explores subtly in the book. Breath is ‘about’ many things: how people, or one person, can shape you and be the catalyst for both the best and worst, the strongest, memories of your life; and how your own choices in regards to this person/people play into those memories. There is the overarching theme, of course, of holding one’s breath – seeking that moment on the edge (between life and death, between feeling and unfeeling, pain and numbness) and the endorphins and adrenaline that come from chasing that moment (in all its forms – sport, lust, love, danger) then coping with the loss of that. Coping with being thrust into ordinariness after knowing ‘that moment’, and what that moment has to do with heroism and confidence; plus the choices made when it turns to pure danger, and when loss becomes inevitable.

Winton rolls us up in the waves, in Bruce Pike’s experiences and outlook, his insularity, and we do hold our breath with him at times. I didn’t think the overall structure was completely successful, as the beginning made me think we’d get back to Pike’s present sooner than we do. But this is a minor qualm. The calmness of the ending, the realism and matter-of-factness of Pike’s experience and story means that elements of the book – the melancholy, the inevitability, the continued interior circling over the desires of the past – still resonate.

So, I enjoyed Breath, a quite simple, layered story, and I will remember it. Congratulations to Tim Winton on his fourth Miles Franklin win! Now, please do tell me your thoughts…

23 thoughts on “Thoughts on 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award winner Breath, by Tim Winton

  1. One of the things, I just realised, that makes your blog more relatable to me is that you don’t appear to have read every book in the world already. People of often omit the kind of honesty you show in the first 3 sentences there.

    • Thanks Chris, I think it’s best to be upfront about these things. Even if you read a book a day you could never get through everything, so I’m not ashamed of the fact I haven’t read all the books I ‘should’ have yet 🙂

  2. I agree Chris.

    I have more books on my ‘to read’ list than my ‘read’ list so Angela is certainly far more at our level to me as well. It makes us feel less unqualified as a writer and reader.

    I must say that I’m more looking forward to The Slap, than Breathe though was curious to hear more about what Chris Curry was responding to in his tweets about snobs hating Breathe because it wasn’t set in Fitzroy.

  3. So, Winton wins again…Sure it is a great novel, one that transends these fake national boundaries. I remember reading Winton saying something along the lines of Australian literature that shows us how we are, rather than how we want to be seen. I loved the novel. It took me back to things I had done, mainly growing up on the coast…
    I think for the good of the award or some ideal of helping the evolution of Australian lit The Slap might have got the gong, aside from the fact that The Slap confronts (perhaps showing us how we don’t want to be seen…?) and challenges in style and content. I read The Pages last and loved the texture…I still see The Wanting as the ‘best’ novel of them all, perhaps too good or too clever…I’ll re-read them all over the next 80 or so years…

  4. I really need to read Winton. My reading list has been embarrassingly scarce of Australian authors. And I’ve heard nothing but praise for Breath. Up it shoots to the top of my TBR pile! Thanks for an unpretentious and entertaining review.

    • Well, Mr Currie didn’t get back to me. Oh well.

      Troy – always love to hear your opinion, but particularly as you’ve read the others, too. And I plan on living til I’m over 100 too. Hopefully we’ll still be discussing literature.

      Elena – welcome! Do read some Aussie lit – and female authors too – done Helen Garner? Email me and tell me what kind of books you like anytime if you want some suggestions 🙂

  5. In the end I felt quite pleased that breath won – and I can see how it meets all the award’s requirements …I’m in about five minds about the slap. I read it compulsively, but then I also read Valley of the Dolls compulsively – The Miles F has always been an award that feels very Ivory Tower, so it’s nice to have read and enjoyed one of theirs for a change …

  6. I read Breath last year and loved it, and so did my boyfriend which is testament to its wide appeal. I thought it was elegant and accessible in a way previous Winton novels haven’t been – although it could be that I am a few years older since reading the others and thus better placed to appreciate his writing. Anyway, to me Breath is a worthy winner.

    I did object to the all male line up for the Miles Franklin and thought the disparity well-summed up here: And while I’ve taken on board what Kerryn says about the biblical template Winton has used in his depiction of women I am still totally charmed by his writing.

    Angela – I just read The Slap and loved it but the actual prose figured little in my enthusiasm for the book. The plot, structure, characters are all captivating but the prose seems secondary somehow. What do you think?

    • Hi nico, I was really compelled by the prose and thought he did well to capture the different voices of the characters (after the first two or three chapters, which were reasonably similar). I suppose the prose is ‘rougher’ than in something like Breath, but not at all plain. I think voice is an important aspect.

      simmone, it’s great that you enjoyed it too. Have there been other MF winners that you didn’t take to? Because of the Ivory Tower thing? I have to admit, I haven’t read many of the winners, but a few of the shortlisted ones.

  7. Dirt Music. Read it. It’s really good. Really good. Cloudstreet is more well-known, but I just loved Dirt Music.

    I have Breath and The Slap on my bedside table waiting to be read – but a 10 month old bubba has other ideas!! Will get there one day!

  8. Well, aren’t I the up-to-the-minute blogger! I was responding–in the Twitter world–to certain comments made by a certain former editor of Voiceworks and a certain current editor of The Lifted Brow RE: Winton not deserving to win the Miles Franklin. The argument went that Breath was the “safe” choice, with The Slap being some sort of nod to new exciting writing and I responded with a wisecrack about Fitzroy-centric thinking.

    I guess, for me, the writing is the key, and although I enjoyed The Slap, I thought Winton’s writing was better, and that’s what sticks with me. I don’t think the Miles Franklin has ever been about awarding “challenging” fiction. It is awarded for literary merit. That said, they do seem to like books with strong links to the Australian landscape etc.

    Either way, if it gets people reading more books, I’m all for it. Speaking to someone who just came back from Japan, Murakami’s new book “19Q4” has been leading the news for weeks, publisher’s can’t keep it in and something of a frenzy has evolved. That’s what I want in Australia.

    Roll on the Booker Prize!

  9. Thanks for (finally) dropping by Chris 😉

    Yes, I’ve heard people calling it ‘safe’ too, and I’m not really down with that either.

    I suppose what I like most about The Slap – in terms of the writing – is the voice. But in line-by-line prose terms, Winton is quite masterful, and paints a vivid picture. So I see what you mean, though, perhaps just subjectively, I still prefer the former book.

    Murakami is another writer I haven’t got to yet (don’t shoot me).

  10. I’ve read some Winton (Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, The Riders & The Turning), but have yet to read Breath – although encouraged to by your remarks as I was previously indifferent, having only scanned a few mainstream reviews.

    I too was rooting for The Slap, a confronting book to which my own review consisted of three words “Moral Relativism, discuss”

  11. Agree with you, Cascade Lily. Dirt Music is superlative. (Angela, if you found yourself unusually excited by my and Grog’s recent debate on the orgasmic denouement to Ulysses, then pay attention to Winton’s characterisation of Georgie in Dirt Music when you get around to reading it. Not orgasmic in the least, but another example of a male writer who is not afraid of writing about real women, and liking them.)

    Cloud Street is his most ambitious and successful novel, but there is something about it that is a little too wannabee. Then again, I sat through an eight-hour production of the play at a bum-numbing theatre in Dublin many years ago, so I think that is proof enough that he’s a rare talent, Our Tim. His short short story collection of a couple of years ago, The Turning, was pretty good too. Very WA but it still resonated with a suburban Queenslander.

    I’m saving up my pocket money for Breath but also for The Slap. I’ll buy the former in hard and the latter in paper.

  12. “Either way, if it gets people reading more books, I’m all for it. Speaking to someone who just came back from Japan, Murakami’s new book “19Q4″ has been leading the news for weeks, publisher’s can’t keep it in and something of a frenzy has evolved. That’s what I want in Australia.”

    Oh, I am so buying that book when it comes out. I lap up anything Murakami writes.

  13. I loved Breath. I agree with Chris in that the writing is better. The female characters in The Slap were too clichéd for me. I guess, too, I spent my childhood holidays in that same era in exactly the spot where Winton has set Breath. I know those huge waves, I was babysat by one of those surfing legends, thus it rang so true and hit so many nostalgic chords for me. I loved the structure, cried at the end. Amazing.

  14. I didn’t mind The Slap but thought it could have easily been half the length, without impairing its message. The first time I read Winton’s Breath, I was less than charmed–it seemed to be a boys-own story based on cliches, e.g., the surfie idol and a older woman seducing a boy. But the second time I read it–this time in preparation for my book group discussion–I marveled at how seamlessly he brought in and expanded on the ideas of breath, addiction, dreams vs reality, and growing old. Interestingly, no one in my book group thought it was as good as some of his other books. Everyone expressed surprise that it won the Miles Franklin.

  15. Pingback: Miller and the Miles Franklin: Do we have too many awards? « Fancy Goods

  16. Pingback: Miles Franklin Award shortlist, 2010 | LiteraryMinded

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