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Originally published Friday, May 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Breath" will have you holding yours

In "Breath" by Tim Winton Farrar, a boy in Western Australia is dead. His grieving mother insists that it was suicide, that her son hanged himself. But a paramedic on the scene knows better.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Tim Winton

The author of "Breath" will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliott baybook.com). Co-sponsored by Image, the literary magazine.

"Breath" by Tim Winton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

205 pp., $23

A boy in Western Australia is dead. His grieving mother insists that it was suicide, that her son hanged himself.

A paramedic on the scene knows better. He spots evidence of an autoerotic accident. And he knows about danger junkies. The experience shakes him and conjures memories that form the bulk of this tender, incisive, sometimes brutal and always moving coming-of-age novel.

As with most of Tim Winton's work (including "Cloudstreet" and "Dirt Music"), "Breath" is set in blue-collar, small-town Western Australia. There's not much for teenagers like Pikelet (as the paramedic/narrator is called) and his pal Loonie to do but practice staying beneath the surface of the town's muddy river as long as possible.

But then they meet Sando, who introduces them to the addictive pleasures of extreme surfing. Soon the three are inseparable, spending their time plotting frighteningly dangerous expeditions.

The 30-something Sando was once a famous professional surfer. He's a brilliant athlete — and a brilliant manipulator. He favors first one kid, then the other with his magnetism, setting them against each other. There's nothing sexual about this — it's a power trip. As Sando's wife, Eva, says, he likes being a guru.

Eva soon plays a major role, turning the edgy emotional triangle into a spiky quadrangle. American, embittered, a champion skier with a ruined knee, she's as irresistible — and vaguely menacing — as Sando.

Slim as it is, "Breath" deeply considers a number of topics. The addictive nature of risk and danger; hero worship; the dynamics of emotional ties; lost dreams; the cluelessness of parents — Winton has important things to say about these things and more.

The book's main characters jump off the page: Loonie, the wild boy; Pikelet, smarter and more cautious; charismatic Sando and Eva. Even the lesser players, such as Pikelet's kindly, bewildered parents, come fully alive. And, as in previous Winton novels, the prose is always astonishing, the descriptions of sea and weather especially vivid.

"Breath" is shot through with images of breathing — and of breathing interrupted, of near-drownings. In the end, the book seems as simple, and as vital, as the act of breathing itself.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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