After my first admission to hospital under Schedule (Mental Health Act) my husband brought me in Tim Winton’s Breath to read. I was in shock at being involuntarily admitted to hospital after my first failed attempt at suicide so he thought something familiar would be good to read. He was right. It was perfect.
The book was about twelve-year-old Bruce Pike, “Pikelet”, who lives in Sawyer, near Perth in Western Australia, in the early 70s. A small town of “millers and loggers and dairy farmers”, Sawyer is also home to Loonie, one year older than Pikelet and a boy congenitally incapable of turning down a dare. They meet in the local river, Loonie swimming to the bottom and holding his breath for upwards of two minutes with the sole intention of scaring tourists into thinking he’s drowning. The boys spur each other on to greater and greater risks, to the point of vomiting and passing out. Anything for a “rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath”
One day, they sneak out on their bikes on a forbidden trip to the ocean and see a surfer skilled above all others, sliding down the waves with “his head thrown back as if he’d just finished singing an anthem that nobody else could hear”. He turns out to be Sando, a “huge, bearded, coiled-up presence”, who’s reached the ancient age of 36.
Soon the boys have their own, barely adequate, boards and Sando becomes something like their guru. They live in frightened awe of him, subconsciously competing for his attention. In return, he sets them bigger and bigger challenges: surfing in a remote bay frequented by a great white shark, risking their lives in the huge waves of Old Smoky – a reef bank a mile offshore – and ultimately taking on the Nautilus, a remote, ship-wrecking rock that spawns waves of great ugliness and insane danger.
It is here that Pikelet reaches his own Waterloo, being unable out of pure fear (and no small dose of good sense) to surf the Nautilus. Sando and Loonie both take it on, though, and soon a gulf opens up between Pikelet and them. Sando takes Loonie to Indonesia to surf without even telling Pikelet they’re going, and Pikelet begins to collapse under his loneliness.
But all this time there has also been Eva, Sando’s spiky, unpleasant wife, resentful of the time Sando is spending with “his little disciples” and more than willing to heap abuse on all three of them. As the years pass, and Sando and Loonie’s trips grow longer, Pikelet and Eva find themselves reluctantly drawn to one another. A sexual relationship develops, even though Pikelet is not yet 15, and he quickly learns the truth behind her caustic demeanour.
Eva used to be an extreme skier, one of the best in the world, before a severe knee injury ended her career, leaving her with a permanent limp. She is, in a way, a version of Pikelet, knowing what excitement is and then suffering from its abrupt withdrawal. “I miss being afraid,” she tells him. “That’s the honest truth.” Then the sex takes an unexpected turn, forcing Pikelet into a situation far beyond the emotional capabilities of a 14-year-old.
Because, finally, this is not a story about surfing; it’s a story about fear, about pushing beyond fear, and about becoming addicted to the pushing. Moreover, it’s a story about the price of being more than ordinary it was just the right book to read at such a time. I had pushed the boundaries of life. It resonated with me it more than it had on the first reading. The characters and their dancing with death and with each other made sense to me in a way it had not before. The passage quoted below summed up my post suicidal thinking. The single minednessnes focus of killing oneself and the total disregard of anyone around me. I love my family but I wished only to escape the pain of past suffering. I could not “hang tough” any longer. All was lost to me. There was nothing left to live for. I had held my breath long enough. Surfed too long the emotions of past abuse and guilt. I awoke only with regret. No grateful feelings for the paramedics for saving me. Immediate thoughts just went to the next plan for exiting this world. Such is the “idiot resolve” is all I have.
“That was the simple objective, being airborne, up longer, up higher, more casually & with more fuck off elegance than anyone else in the world. I never understood the rules or the science of it but I recognized the single-mindedness it took to match risk with nerve come what may. Some endeavours require a kind of egotism, a near autistic narrowness. Everything conspires against you – the habits of physics, the impulse to flee – & you’re weighed down by every dollop of commonsense dished up. Everyone will tell you your goal is impossible, pointless, stupid, wasteful so you hang tough. You back yourself & only yourself. This idiot resolve is all you have.”
― Tim Winton,