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Faith and humanism behind Tim Winton's curtain

  • 26 October 2016


'When I was a kid I liked to stand at the window with a rifle and aim it at people.' So begins the opening, titular essay in Tim Winton's collection, The Boy Behind the Curtain.

That moment, lifted from one of the stories in Winton's The Turning, where it had in turn been lifted from the author's own childhood, is a singularly arresting entre to an essay that charts the author's complex relationship with firearms (part awe, part terror), by way of commenting on the place of guns in Australian society generally. In this collection of essays Winton adopts this mode frequently, weaving (sometimes deeply) personal narratives into stirring, thoughtful commentary on a broad range of social and political issues.

'Using the C-Word', for example, explores how Winton's blue-collar origins underpin a consciousness of class that has become unfashionable. He makes a compelling case for the ways in which class continues to shape Australian society, and the political processes and rhetoric (John Howard's Battlers; Julia Gillard's Working Families) that made class a dirty word.

'The Demon Shark' is a splendid three-part sandwich that begins with a review of Peter Matthiesen's shark-chasing memoir Blue Meridian and ends with a description of Winton's own frightening close encounter with a bronze whaler in the surf, via an atypically didactic retort to Australians' demonisation of these magnificent fish.

Winton's characteristically fine, vivid and humane writing services a jarringly diverse array of subjects. 'A Space Odyssey at Eight' recounts the baffling and eye-opening experience of seeing Stanley Kubrik and Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction masterpiece as a boy, and the long-lasting impact this had on him as a producer and consumer of stories.

In 'The Wait and the Flow' he provides the most sublime descriptions of the experience of surfing since ... well, since his own, 2008 novel, Breath. The essay illuminates the author's passionate, lifelong relationship with the sea, evident in so much of his fiction; it also eventually offers up a profound metaphor for the experience of writing itself.

The Boy Behind the Curtain provides numerous windows onto the author's life, without constituting his 'life story' per se. 'Havoc: A Life in Accidents' recounts a series of traumas experienced or witnessed in his youth, that shaped him. One of these led directly to the conversion of his parents to Christianity, which proves to be a pivotal moment.

That essay contains the roots of two others: one, 'In the Shadow of the