Meanjin Tournament of Books: Breath vs Sea Hearts

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— This piece originally appeared in Meanjin. 

I read once that vertigo is less about the fear of falling than the desire to fall. An overwhelming conflict between competing desires. It is, I later found, an old Salman Rushdie quote that has stayed with me—long after I remember its context—and it seems to express the contradiction within us, the simultaneous terror and allure evoked also by vast, crashing expanses like the ocean.

Tim Winton’s Breath and Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts recognise the instincts towards destruction and preservation stirred up by the ocean. They’re about the deception of the sea, the way it changes and marks you. But even more powerfully, they explore the entanglement of ocean and desire, the lure of danger and otherness. They’re about the water and the effect it has upon us, usually darkly.

Curiously, both also explore women as siren figures—temptresses who lead to ruin, for themselves and their lovers.

Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts centers most explicitly on this mythic image of women, not sirens but closely related to them, the Selkie legend from Scottish, Irish and Icelandic folklore. Like mermaids, these sea wives spring from finned creatures – in this legend from the bodies of seals —but emerge wholly as long-limbed, enchantingly beautiful young women, with only the seal “coats” they leave behind as clues to their true nature.

Akin to sirens but devoid of their malice, they are quiet and submissive, yearning only for the sealskins that will allow them to return to the water. The selkies are ensnared and ensnaring, as too are the men who have paid to have them conjured, in order to possess the creatures as their wives.

Sea Hearts is the tale of a sea witch, Misskaella, who can draw forth these beautiful women from the bodies of seals. Misskaella is an outcast in her childhood: ugly, fat, whispered about by the dreary inhabitants of the island of Rollrock, until the discovery of her peculiar gift, when she then becomes a thing of fear. It is this gift she employs as a form of revenge against all those Rollrock women who taunted and tormented her:

‘Any man seeing this maiden’s lips would want to lay kisses on them; he would want to roll in the cushions of those lips, swim the depths of those eyes, run his hands down the long foreign lengths of this girl. Oh, I thought, women of Rollrock, you are nothing now.’

The ordinary women of the town are now themselves fated to be spurned by men in favour of beautiful sea wives, and Sea Hearts examines the effects of Misskaella’s actions as they ripple out through the generations.

Tim Winton’s Breath holds at its core harmful desire too, but one far darker. This is a work set tangibly in the real world, which begins with an ambulance officer who is called to an apparent suicide by a teenage boy. There is something in its circumstances though that Bruce Pike recognises, and doubts whether the young boy’s death was intentional. This begins the long Bildungsroman flashback to Pike’s early boyhood—as he and his best friend Loonie are spurred to ever more dangerous tests and taunts with the ocean and their ‘rebellion against the monotony of drawing breath.’

Beginning first with competitions in the murky depths of a riverbed, holding their breath underwater til their vision becomes spotty and lungs burn, as well as silly playground games of hyperventilation and winding, ‘I thought of boys falling to the ground in swoons. Mottled faces. Blue-white lips. The stiffened limbs of the poleaxed,’ they move their sights to the crashing waves of the ocean to learn to surf.

Through needing a place to store their boards, they become entangled with an enigmatic older couple, Sando and his wife Eva. Collecting their boards each weekend, they begin an unofficial tutelage under Sando, a former international surfing champion, who pushes them to ever more dangerous limits with colossal walls of waves that break over great rocks in sharky waters.

In Breath, too, the protagonist is lured by a woman close to the sea. She is not the long-limbed, willowy seductiveness of the selkies. ‘Eva was stocky and blunt. As a blonde she tended towards the agricultural…Her limbs were shapely enough though tough and scarred,’ she exerts a luring power over Pike: ‘I watched her when she was present and conjured her when she was not.’ Yet, Eva herself holds a longing for something equally destructive. Its own kind of underwaterness, a sexual desire for the forced holding of breath.

Both Breath and Sea Hearts are incredible oceanic works, utterly different in tone. Sea Hearts is an intricate, peculiar, fairytale-like story of lilting, lyrical prose—curious apparent anachronisms make up the language, ‘mams and babs,’ ‘emblanket’ ‘sprogget’. Breath’s prose is still and unadorned compared to Lanagan’s, and yet it is poetic in the many sections that meditate on the multitudinous incidents and permutations of the title.

In Lanagan’s work the sea is an abiding presence in the background, but the tale is less about the ocean than the inhabitants who spring from and long to return to it. It is Breaththat is more truly steeped in the ocean, in its changeable hardness and lure. Winton writes powerfully of the beauty of the water when riding high upon it, ‘for a moment—just a brief second of enchantment—I felt weightless, a moth riding light,’ as well as the danger and impossibility of its conflict between the fear of not breathing and the desire to stay immersed.

WINNER: Breath by Tim Winton

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