Actually, two books this month. Why?
I thought it would have to be Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, which I thoroughly enjoyed for the game it plays. It’s a fiction about fiction, it’s clever. But I was talking to writer friend, Australian-born Michelle Lovric, about my new-found enthusiasm for Tim Winton, in particular his Dirt Music. Though I’d admired Winton’s short stories, I told her, I was playing catch-up with his novels. She recommended Breath.
However enthusiastic I become about a writer I like to pace my reading of their work. Book after book can start to feel like gulping down a case of wine rather than savouring each sip of a large glass. No matter how powerful the vintage, well, suddenly all you want [need?] is water. So I read and enjoyed the game-playing Sweet Tooth before plunging into the deep sea of Breath. What a contrast: the McEwan urban and knowing, the Winton elemental and spare. It’s difficult to say much more about Sweet Tooth without giving the game away - you’ll either love it or hate it.
Breath is a coming-of-age-book. An emergency in the present triggers the main character, Pike, to recall an extraordinary period of his youth.
After the adrenaline rush of the opening the reader is flung back into
Pike’s past. These slower paced episodes of boyhood reminiscence at first seem
a let down after the highly-charged first chapter. But Winton’s prose is so clean and
visual that each episode draws the reader further into the tensions between safe, small-town life in
Western Australia and the dangerous allure of the big ocean that is never far away.
Even though I was enjoying Winton’s conjuring up of specific wave forms, and being taken into water I'd never dare enter, by the middle of the book I did begin to wonder if it would turn out to be simply a surfer's log. However, the last third picked up the pace of the opening.
Breath is about far more than surfing. It’s about facing-out fear – fear of the extreme and fear of being ordinary and is, quite simply, breathtaking.
Why not settle for one of these novels? There was something about reading these two books back-to-back that reminded me how important it is to have a varied diet of fiction and how impossible it is to say that ‘good’ fiction is simply one particular sensibility. Here are two very different writers, two very different books. I appreciated each book more for having read the other.
What the books have in common, though, is the confidence and consistency of a distinctive voice on the page. It is this, as much as story, that holds the reader.