The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton


I found this audiobook of essays written and read by Tim Winton so heartening that when I finished it, I listened to it again immediately. I have never done that before, either listening or reading a book, so what is different about this one?

First he writes so beautifully, using such a literate vocabulary with the bonus of the vernacular of Australia, perhaps in particular, working class Australians of a certain age. The subjects of the essays vary widely from his (and other Australians') connections to guns, the effect of his family's evangelical religious bent, his work in the environmental movement, class divisions as he observes it, and running throughout, his love of living near the sea and surfing.

Church loomed large in his family life and Sundays were exhausting so that Monday seemed a day of rest. He tells about one poignant story of his experience:

When I was six, I approached an older gentleman called George Smith to ask him about the size of my soul. I sidled up to him after church one morning and stood at his side until he registered my presence. He was younger then than I am now, but to me he had a wise and ancient mien. Maybe it was the specs. I don't remember why, at that age, I required soul dimensions, all I know is that my need was urgent. Mr. Smith took off his glasses, gave 'em a bit of a buff. Eventually he took my hand, closed it and pressed it against my chest. He told me he'd never actually seen a human soul but his best guess was that mine was about the size of my fist. I considered this skeptically; I may have only been six, but I wasn't stupid. Then I thought how sometimes my spirit ached like the aftermath of a sucker punch, burning right there, where old George Smith had his hand in mine like a thump in the chest whose afterglow left a feel and shape of a fist. And so his answer rang true. In the years since, my satisfaction with it has only deepened not because it convinces me in the literal sense it once did, but because there's such humanity and imagination in the image. What moves me most is that he bothered to answer my question at all.

It's a pleasure to read personal essays by someone who is so unconventional in that he doesn't fit any stereotypes. He makes me think of my father's assessment of my sister in 1967; in trying to puzzle out what she might be up to in college, he concluded she was too weird to be a hippie. Winton is a Christian, but not in any predictable sense. He doesn't own any guns, but has a complicated connection with them. He is a brilliant writer, but seems uneasy in any literary establishment sense.

I was unnerved to realize that it took a second listening to recognize that an experience in my own life was surprisingly similar to one in his. When he was six years old, his father was in an accident that nearly cost his life and required a long convalescence and later surgeries. He tells how much this affected his life and shook his sense of safety.

A week before my seventh birthday my mother drove her car into the path of a train where there was no crossing arm. I remember the moment we were told and my father was whisked away. My teenage older sister took charge and assured me everything would be fine. My mother was terribly injured:  her broken neck alone made it seem unlikely that she would survive. But she did and though she was a different person, she eventually recovered to manage our household. The community, particularly the church community, stepped in and cared for us in countless ways. I grew up feeling the great kindness of all those people and always loved that church family even through my teenage years when I had lost my faith. That accident made me conscious my family was different from others as my mother was so marked physically by it. 

This is a wonderful book that I will return to for comfort and relief in the face of the trials that continue to come our way in this country.

Tim Winton, The Boy Behind the Curtain, Picador, 2017 (I listened to the audiobook). Only available from third party sellers through Amazon.

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