A head dip into four great sea-faring stories to wet your appetite and get you reading between swells this winter.
Breath – Tim Winton
Winton is perhaps the number one go-to-guy for sea and surf related fiction with a literary twang. His stories explore both the beauty and the underbelly of humanity, and belong to the ordinary people who inhabit the coastal fringes of Aus – in them you’ll likely recognize yourself, your mates, your family and your hometown.
Breath follows the story of twelve-year-old Pikelet and his mate Loonie, as they toy with the limits of fear under the encouragement of the older Sando. It explores masculinity and that relentless expectation amongst many Australian guys to ‘man-up’.
While it’s all about being gutsy, there’s another element of surfing that Winton taps into. His young narrator describes the dance of the surfer:
"How strange it was to see men do something beautiful, something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared."
This sentiment is echoed in Winton’s writing; his voice is at once poetic and masculine, even ordinary, and that’s what makes it so compelling.
Pikelet pushes the limits of fear both in and out of the water, and perhaps that’s the draw card for this novel. There’s more here than a straight down the line surf story.
Dogs of Winter – Kem Nunn
Crossing the Pacific now we head to the northwest coastline of the US, trading Winton’s laid-back narration for something a little punchier. Kem Nunn is a Californian author and surfer who is known for his surf-noir style fiction. His fourth novel, Dogs of Winter, takes on the icy, ominous tones of its setting – the infamously shark-infested waters of the Red Triangle. It follows a disillusioned photographer and a has-been surfing legend on a mission to catch the perfect wave. But there’s another story unfolding simultaneously, as the wife of our surfing legend embarks on a lone search for the murderer of a local girl.
Nunn provides a killer combo of mystery and action, his story full of dark themes and characters, interlaced with unique surfing descriptions that manage to sidestep cliché. The narrator, looking out at the line-up as a set rolls in, defines the fleeting nature of the barrel:
“…the vaunted green room of surfing myth – the place to be if you were to be there at all… encompassed by the sound and the fury, bone dry in a place no one had ever been, or would be again, because when the wave was gone the place was gone too and would only exist in memory…"
Past the Shallows – Favel Parrett
Back home now, we head east side and southbound, to the Apple Isle, but this time from a gal’s perspective. Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows tells the story of three brothers living on the cold, desolate south-coast of Tassie. They try their best to stay out of the way of their stern and often violent father. The reader is taken out to sea, as the father – with the reluctant middle-brother Miles in tow – attempts to make his living diving for abalone. In between times, we head out into the line-up with the boys, to grab a moment’s respite. If you grew up in a small coastal town, with a hard-arsed old-man of few words, this story will resonate. But don’t worry if you didn’t, neither did I and I still liked it. The magic of this novel lies in the relationship between the two youngest brothers, Harry and Miles, and the lengths they go to in looking out for one another.
Parrett is a contemporary Australian writer, and this is her first novel, but it’s a beauty. She taps effortlessly into a contemporary Australian way of life, centered in and around the sea. This description of Miles in the surf is just one among many little gems:
“He lived for this, for these moments when everything stops except your heart beating and time bends and ripples – moves past your eyes frame by frame and you feel beyond time and before time and no one can touch you.”
The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
Now for an old classic. The Old Man and the Sea is like riding a nine-foot long-board on a slow, peeling one footer that’s a kilometer long. But the bank is just right, making for a perfect, melodic ride all the way to shore. Not that it’s all smooth sailing for the old man, in fact, far from it. One mammoth fish and a bunch of hungry sharks make sure of that. But it is a very slow moving book, so if you like quick, punchy story lines, this might not be the one for you. As you read, you learn a kind of philosophical patience from the old man, and an understanding of the sea and of the world that surely comes with age alone.
This is not a surf story, but the narrative and the characters revolve around and depend entirely on the sea. For those who spend a lot of time in the water, surely you have contemplated the ocean and your relationship with it many times. The little wisdoms dotted throughout the story are reason alone to give this book a chance. It might remind you of your granddad, if you ever happen to catch him in a small moment of quiet reflection.
“… the old man thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
Ed's Note: Emily Brugman grew up on the south coast of New South Wales. She studied Writing and Cultural Studies at the University of Technology in Sydney and currently sells books at Gertrude and Alice bookshop cafe in Bondi. In her spare time she likes to surf, read and plant succulents in recycled baked bean cans and crochet pretty covers for them.