THE Australian writer Tim Winton (Features, 30 May 2014) is best known for his novels: Cloudstreet, The Riders, Dirt Music (these last two shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), and Breath. In his 57th year, he looks back on his life and times in The Boy Behind the Curtain.
This is no autobiography or memoir in the conventional sense. It comprises 22 pieces that — while they’re rooted in his own experience and history — are more like essays or reflections. More often than not, he will start with an episode from his past, and use it as a viewing point from which to consider a wider vista.
For instance, he recounts vividly a childhood night drive with his father (a policeman) during which they come across a shocking motorcycle accident. From here, Winton proceeds to explore the part that accident and risk has played in his life. He writes: “Without strife, the cop and the novelist have nothing to work with . . . to be afraid is to be awake. And to exist at all in this universe is to be caught up at the scene of the happiest accident of all.”
In truth, this book feels less of a literary work than it does a painter’s naked self-portrait. With disarming, and self-deprecating, candour, he reveals his wrinkles, scars, and blemishes, against the backdrop of a baked Australian landscape, which is strewn with symbols of his history and preoccupations.
He writes compellingly about how he moved from a “utilitarian’ approach to his surroundings to become someone who, unwillingly, but out of desperation, has become a leading environmental activist. His desire is, as “a sun-damaged old beachcomber”, to pass on “a kind of saltwater birthright — a healthy sea” to his grandchildren.
He writes about his life-long obsession with surfing, and the vigilance and patience it takes to wait for the perfect wave, when, as you ride the surge, “you live for a short while in the eternal present tense. And the feeling is divine.” He writes, “This is how I experience writing, which is its own compulsion. I show up. I wait.”
The Divine itself is a preoccupation, too. Winton grew up in a small working-class congregation of the Church of Christ in Western Australia. Its passionate, tribal, fundamentalism has left its mark. For one thing, it taught him the power and the limits of story and language: “Scripture stories were my bread and butter. The best, of course, were from the Old Testament, though for all their colour and action they were morally incomprehensible.” It was in church that he learned “how perilously faith depends on story, for without narrative there is only theological assertion . . . Story is the beast of burden, the bearer of imaginative energy.”
He writes of discovering in church how important it is to mind one’s language. Expressing faith, he says, “is not unlike expressing love, for both involve fraught searches for the right phrase when it often seems that none are good, true, or safe enough to do the job.”
The church was his village, though he doubts that he will ever feel at ease there again. These days he finds solace in the eucharist, which “has become the central focus, the still point if you will; I receive it on my knees, and cross myself like a papist.” But he still misses “the mad, joyful, erotic abandon of Evangelical singing.”
The Boy Behind the Curtain will appeal most to Winton enthusiasts. There are plenty of references to Australian politicians, personalities, and popular culture which may pass some UK readers by, but the book is salty, powerful, and deep — like the ocean Winton lives by. It’s well worth the plunge.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
The Boy Behind the Curtain: Notes from an Australian life
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