It’s easy for an old man to look back and see the obvious, how wasted youth and health and safety are on the young who spurn such things, to be dismayed by the risks you took, but as a youth you do sense that life renders you powerless by dragging you back to it, breath upon breath upon breath in an endless capitulation to biological routine, and that the human will to control is as much about asserting power over your own body as exercising it on others.
Tim Winton’s tale of growing up in the surf of Western Australia in the 1970s won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2008 along with a variety of newspaper awards, and I strongly disagree with their judgement. While it has the self-important and philosophical bent of the prize-winner (see also: A Visit From The Goon Squad and The Sense Of An Ending… and The God Of Small Things, while we’re listing prize-winning books I can’t stand), and the first phase of the book, telling how Bruce Pike’s disenchanted teenage years with his shy parents were rescued by his gung-ho pal Loonie and surfing, is readable enough, midway through it rapidly descends into sexually-charged, faux-suicidal garbage, then putters along to its vapid conclusion.
Pike is Everyboy, annoyed with his meek parents who are scared of the sea, quite a good student without being exceptional, sociable without being a leader. He meets Ivan Loon, town tearaway, and the two strike up a solid although occasionally fraught friendship, in which Loonie demands devotion and admiration, and cannot bear to be outdone. When the boys discover the allure of the surf and a mentor who used to be a champion surfer, their teenage rebellion is harnessed and they spend 100 pages enjoying life and being pretty normal. Winton struck the balance between carefree enjoyment and the thrall of danger, the discontent of youth and the battle between egos well here.
Unfortunately, as apparently with almost every book these days, that wasn’t enough. We had to have the infidelity, the unconventional and dangerous bedroom episodes, the betrayal and lying and drama. This passage ruined the book for me as it was an unnecessarily dark twist and felt like Winton was trying far too hard.
The book gets 3 out of 1o rather than zero because of the quality of the writing and the authenticity of the teenage voice, but on the whole that is all there is to recommend this prize-winner.