Book review: The Boy Behind the Curtain, by Tim Winton

Tim Winton
Tim Winton
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Tim Winton is engaging, complex and in this collection, finally revealing, writes Roger Cox

When I reviewed Tim Winton’s last non-fiction book, Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir, almost exactly a year ago today, I didn’t find anywhere near as much insight into what made the author tick as I’d been expecting. It felt less like a memoir, I wrote, and more like a “collection of public pronouncements on the state of the Australian psyche in general.” So when this new collection of essays landed on my desk, heralded as “Winton’s most personal book to date,” I could hardly ignore it – particularly as its title offered to finally lift the lid on the interior life of one of the greatest writers ever to emerge from Down Under.

To any Australians reading (or Californians or Hawaiians), the title will also suggest a secondary, surf-related meaning: to be “behind the curtain” is to be in the tube – flying along under the pitching lip of a wave and racing towards daylight. That, combined with the cover photo of an anonymous boy playing in the shorebreak somewhere warm suggests that this book – like Winton’s acclaimed 2008 novel Breath – might be all about surfing, but in fact surfing only gets a relatively brief, albeit significant look-in.

The essay “The Wait and the Flow” is a sort of potted history of Winton’s surfing career, from early ecstasies through disillusionment with the machismo that had begun to take over the sport in the 80s to the realisation, later in life, that it was once again possible to enjoy a surf in Oz without having to channel your inner Alpha in order to get a wave to yourself. This being Winton, however, it’s also more than that: for him, the act of surfing is much like the act of writing: “When you manage to [catch a wave] you live for a short while in the eternal present tense,” he writes. “That’s how I experience writing. I show up. I wait. When some surge of energy finally arrives, I do what I must to match its speed. While I can I ride its force.”

In the context of the rather stand-offish Land’s Edge, that little glimpse into his creative process counts as a major act of soul-bearing, but in the context of this latest book it’s pretty much par for the course; because, as advertised, in The Boy Behind the Curtain we really do get to meet the real Tim Winton, and he proves every bit as complex and engaging a character as fans of his fiction might have hoped.

As it turns out, the book’s title is unexpectedly literal: the opening essay, also called “The Boy Behind the Curtain,” begins with the simple, chilling line: “When I was a kid I liked to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people.” This, for the 13-year-old Winton, newly arrived with his family in Albany, Western Australia, was apparently something of an addiction – a secret sniper routine he would perform whenever he was alone in the house – and his honest, entirely unselfconscious exploration of the reasons behind it throws up all kinds of fascinating revelations about the various pressures he felt were bearing down on him during these formative years.

Where things start getting really personal, however, is when Winton gets around to discussing the trauma he suffered when his father – a traffic policeman – was very nearly killed while on duty, after his car was smashed against a wall by a driver who had run a red light. Winton writes movingly of the doom-laden atmosphere in the house when his father finally returned from the hospital, “a broken man, an effigy, really” and of the rage he felt about the fact that “a stranger had ruined my father”. This experience, Winton believes, this early realisation that your life could change in an instant, has had a big impact on his writing. “In my fiction, I’ve been a chronicler of sudden moments like these,” he notes. “Because the abrupt and the headlong are old familiars.”

In almost complete contrast to Land’s Edge, which, for all its eloquence, tended to keep the reader at arm’s length, this is a real memoir – a book that grabs you by the scruff and forces you to take a good, hard look into the author’s soul. Compelling, unflinching and true, it’s surely the definitive statement on Winton the man – and a clever sales ploy, too, as it will doubtless send fans and new converts alike scrambling to either read or re-read his fiction, searching for telling echoes of the author’s remarkable life.

The Boy Behind the Curtain is published by Picador, £16.99