Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2009

Breath (2008), by Tim Winton

breathOh dear, what can I possibly write about Breath without invoking great angst and derision from his legion of devoted fans?  It’s Tim Winton’s first book in seven years, Winton the Environmentalist is a hero to lovers of pristine coastlines, the book’s on the Miles Franklin shortlist (which he’s previously won three times) and there are long lyrical passages about surfing…

I think Winton needs to get out a bit more.  I thought so when I read Dirt Music, and I thought it again when I read The Turning.  It’s his business, I suppose, if he wants to be the Thomas Hardy of whatever Western Australian coastal small town he lives in, but I think that he is wasting his talent because he hasn’t travelled enough and he doesn’t seem to meet a diversity of people.  Why are all his characters such depressing losers?


By about half way through this novel, I was fed up.  The only interesting character is the ambulance paramedic from chapter one who disagrees with his colleague about suicide as the cause of Aaron’s death – and Bruce the Adult vanishes from the story.  Instead we have the nostalgic boys-own-adventure story of Bruce and his mate Looney, who spend their adolescence chasing one risk after another, egged on by their guru Sando.  There are long sections about the joys and perils of surfing, which I am soooooooooo not interested in.  It doesn’t take long before it’s also quite obvious where Winton is going with the theme of adolescent experimentation with risky behaviour and how it links up with Aaron’s death.   He has written his own spoiler in the opening chapter (and he does it again on p157) because it is so obvious that the world-weary Bruce regrets the loss of a risk-taking friend, and it just becomes a matter of guessing which one it will turn out to be.  And that’s not hard at all.

I know I’m going to be howled down by everyone for this dismissive review – try not to be too cross, dear readers!

PS (September 2014, five years later) I’ve just come across this thoughtful review from someone new to Winton.  Perhaps Winton has, for some of us, become a victim of his own success and because we’ve read everything he’s written we want something new.  But Rough Ghost reads Winton with a freshness that respects what he has done in Breath.  Whatever you think about Winton, this is a review worth reading because it’s rare to find one from someone who didn’t ‘do’ Winton at school, or ‘love’ Cloudstreet.

Author: Tim Winton
Title: Breath
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin) 2008
ISBN: 9780241015308
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings, $34.95


  1. Oh no!. Well you know I loved this book (not unreservedly, but still its good). We will have to agree to disagree.


  2. I know: I read your excellent review:)
    I expect I’m in a very small minority here….



  3. I agree with you. I felt as if I’d read it all before in The Rider, Dirt Music and The Turning. If it was the only book he had ever written, it would be brilliant, but after nearly thirty years he seems to have written HIMSELF over and over again.


  4. It turns out we are not alone. No less a personage than Kerryn Goldsworthy had this to say on the ALR Blog ….”frankly I don’t understand the degree of fuss being made about Breath, in which Winton does very little that he hadn’t already done before, and which partly rests on some ugly assumptions about women” See


  5. As an expat I find Winton’s books a perfect reflection of Australian society. He repeats the same themes repeatedly because that is the limit of the Australian ‘psyche’. We don’t have a Bach, a Shakespeare, a Rembrandt etc. so we have developed a beach culture. David Williamson writes about nothing as well, and also wins awards. Peter Carey comes from advertising, and this shows in his writing, which lacks the finesse or imagination of Patrick White at his best. We have Patrick, and then kilometres behind come the rest.


  6. I thought I was going to die of boredom when I was reading all those pages about surfing….


  7. yep, pretty much agree with this review. I’m a big fan of Tim Winton and I love his evocative writing and his control over language, but this story left me feeling a bit bored. And I’ve got a few questions that I’d love someone to answer: Why doesn’t the paramedic just tell his partner about the boy’s death? What’s the big deal? It’s not like it’s something people have never heard of. Why doesn’t just she know anyway? And secondly, why does the guy go crazy? I found that pretty sketchy. Did anyone find that believable?


    • Good questions, Kim. It felt to me as if the whole structure was subordinate to the ‘breath’ motif and events and characters had to be made to fit.


  8. […] Breath by Tim Winton […]


  9. Thanks for the pingback to my post. I am new to Winton though many of the readers I interact with seem to enjoy his work. Perhaps we are too hard on our own country’s writers who seem to get unfettered praise (do not criticize Margaret Atwood here in Canada!). Having been through some complicated experiences balancing adult reality, I was actually drawn in to the trail that leads Bruce to his adult profession and was pleased to see it was not a neat riding off into the sunset process.

    I am also planning to see Winton interviewed on stage next month and I am looking forward to it even if it shames me that at my age he has achieved such literary accomplishment).


    • Goodness, why feel ashamed? Winton’s a talented author, but he was also fortunate in that his early writing was very successful and was taken up as a set text in schools, the legacy of that being reader loyalty. I’m not diminishing that: plenty of set texts end up generating intense dislike of an author, and I myself liked Cloudstreet as a very fine book indeed (see my review here:
      But there are other very fine writers who don’t achieve that early success and so don’t ever get the opportunity to refine their craft as full-time writers. It’s not easy to be super-successful in any field, and writing is harder than most because it (still, IMO) depends so much on publisher support and yet the work is mostly done alone, squeezed into whatever scraps of time are available.


  10. I’ve resisted reading Tim Winton for years but picked up a copy of Breath in an op shop last year. i agree with you about the themes, but being new to Winton I simply absorbed the beauty and perfection of his prose. For me, when I read a book so beautifully composed, the words themselves transcend the narrative which, for me, just provides a framework. This does not happen often. Therefore I loved the book. I have recently purchased a copy of Dirt Music, but was reluctant to do so because of the depressing storyline (so I agree with you on that one.)


    • Hello Lisa, thank you for taking the time to comment:)
      If you are new to Winton, may I recommend Cloudstreet? That is his most popular book, and it’s a wonderful homage to working-class Aussies of a bygone era. And as in Breath, the writing is beautiful.


  11. This is a great review! I had very mixed feelings about Breath after reading it. It was really discomforting for the most part but once I finished I felt a greater appreciation for it. I am keen to see the movie to see where Simon Baker has taken it. I’ve watched some interviews and it’s drawn me in.


    • Thanks, Theresa, I felt quite brave writing it because I thought I was the only person in the universe who wasn’t bowled over by the book, but it turns out I was not alone after all…

      Liked by 1 person

  12. […] Franklin Award four times – for Shallows, (1984); Cloudstreet, (1992); Dirt Music (2002) and the only one I’ve reviewed here, Breath (2009).  Winton has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for The Riders (1994) […]


  13. […] and he has won countless awards, most notably the Miles Franklin four times.  If you’ve read my review of Breath you’ll know that I’m not an enthusiast, but I have to say that Land’s Edge, A […]


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