The Boy Behind the Curtain is a collection of essays that presents a collage of author Tim Winton’s life. It presents a particular focus on Winton’s childhood, his connection to the Australian landscape, and his social and political views.
The opening essay, “The Boy Behind the Curtain,” describes Winton’s childhood habit of aiming an unloaded rifle at strangers passing beneath the front window of his house. The habit isn’t one young Winton rationalizes; he keeps it secret from the rest of his family, and he eventually stops using the gun altogether. As Winton reflects on this time in his life, he realizes that he was drawn to the gun for its promise of power at a time when he felt particularly helpless. Subsequently, as an adult, he refuses to have a gun in his house.
In “A Space Odyssey at Eight,” Winton recalls his trip to the cinema as an eight-year-old with his friends to watch Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film horrified and alienated Winton’s friends. As an adult, Winton recognizes the experience as a time when he began to understand the power of creativity. Watching the film again as an adult, he understands the statement it makes about the ability of human creation to far outlast the creators themselves.
The following essay, “Havoc: A Life in Accidents,” opens with young Winton witnessing a motorbike crash and the subsequent chaos that unfolds when his father attempts to help the rider. The fear this experience inspires in Winton is a holdover from when, a few years earlier, his father was himself critically injured in a motorbike accident; the incident altered the course of Winton’s life changed dramatically. Present-day Winton connects these incidents by suggesting that danger has punctuated his life. No matter what, danger will find him. And as a writer, he realizes that danger fuels his stories, just as it fueled his father’s career as a police officer.
“A Walk at Low Tide” is a brief sketch of Winton’s regular walk along the shoreline at low tide. On this particular morning, he pays special attention to the creatures littering the beach, acknowledging their stories and the complex part they play in their ecological system.
“Repatriation” follows Tim Winton on a visit to Mt Gibson Sanctuary, a destocked sheep station that a philanthropist has transformed into a nature reserve. As he drives through the landscape alone, Winton reflects on his first visit there a few years before, when scientists explained to him their hope that the boodie, an endangered marsupial, would one day return to its natural habitat there. He ventures across a gathering of stones that marks out an ancient gathering place for different Aboriginal peoples. He suggests that both the people and the natural flora and fauna that were once at home in this place are showing signs of strengthening and returning.
In “Betsy,” Winton recalls the 1954 Hillman Minx his grandfather drove which ended up being his father’s car, too. Betsy, as his grandfather named her, is humiliatingly ugly and outdated, and an unfortunate turn of events leads to Winton’s father quietly decommissioning her.
“Twice on Sundays” details Winton’s experience growing up in a family who attends church several times each week. Sundays are exhausting for young Winton with their demands of multiple church services and community evangelizing. Throughout his adolescence, he begins to question the church’s insular attitudes toward politics and social change, and the community grows frustrated with his constant challenges. Winton remains a Christian throughout his adulthood, and though he’s wary of the tribalism that churches foster, he’s still drawn to the practice of collective ritual in repetitive prayers and rousing hymns.
“High Tide” is another brief sketch illuminating Winton’s connection to the ocean. On a particularly hot day, he and a companion swim out toward a reef that’s swarming with sea life and observe the flurry of aquatic traffic.
In “The Wait and the Flow,” teenage Winton distances himself from the surfing community as it becomes more aggressive and sexist throughout the 1980s. Eventually, he finds a group of likeminded, mellow surfers and embraces the habit again, enjoying the meditative pattern of waiting for a wave and allowing it to carry him to shore. The pattern is similar to that of his writing process—in writing, it’s not fresh waves but new ideas that carry him to shore.
“In the Shadow of the Hospital” dissects Winton’s complex thoughts and emotions surrounding the idea of hospitals. Winton and his father’s hospitalizations were times of pain and uncertainty, so living almost next door to a large hospital brings chaos into Winton’s life. But when his wife is working as a nurse on an oncology ward while heavily pregnant with their first child, the hospital’s contrasting purposes—to protect life and to facilitate death—strangely combine. Tim’s subsequent experiences of meeting his first grandchild in a hospital and seeing his father with a new pacemaker encourage him to consider the hospital as a place of not only fear but hope and progress.
“The Battle for Ningaloo Reef” follows Winton as he becomes an unlikely campaigner for a vulnerable coral reef off Australia’s western coast. The experience teaches him to value connections between people of diverse political and ideological backgrounds, as he sees that even the unlikeliest members of society may want to make a difference.
In “Letter from a Strong Place,” Winton spends half a year at the Gate Lodge of Leap Castle in Ireland where he’s undertaking a writing residency that the owner of the castle gifted to him. The surroundings are so laden with history that they begin to suffocate Winton, who’s used to Australia’s sparse landscape.
“Chasing Giants” follows Winton and his wife paddling out to find a pod of humpback whales. Winton often chases the whales for ages without catching them—but this time, they encircle him, and he wonders at their shared intelligence.
Winton’s explores his obsession with sharks in “The Demon Shark,” first by exploring Peter Matthiessen’s book Blue Meridian, which documents the filming of a great white shark, then by analyzing the Australian tendency to villainize sharks and people’s resulting indifference when sharks are mistreated and endangered.
In “Using the C-word,” Winton wrestles with the modern urge to avoid using the word “class” when discussing inequality. This is a stark contrast to his working-class childhood, during which everyone seemed aware of their class and relative social mobility. He comes to terms with his own status as a middle-class novelist while knowing many of his family members are not able to read his books for lack of education, and suggests that an unwillingness to reckon with class boundaries will only perpetuate inequality.
“Lighting Out” follows Winton as he drives east across the border with South Australia after a frustrating summer of writing. He grieves the many pages of work he had to cut in order to salvage his novel.
In “Stones for Bread,” Winton rallies his fellow Australians by reminding them that many of them, or their ancestors, came to Australia as refugees, and asking them why they feel exempt from welcoming people to their country who seek refuge.
“Remembering Elizabeth Jolley” is a portrait of Winton’s writing teacher, the celebrated Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley. Winton reflects on the shrewd advice she gave him about the writing industry.
Winton returns to the subject of the ocean in “Sea Change.” When he takes his now elderly father out fishing, he realizes that the restrictions on fishing are a sign that Australia is beginning to take seriously the need to protect their aquatic habitats. Winton hopes that the beauty of the ocean will be preserved for his grandchildren to enjoy.
In the collection’s final essay, “Barefoot in the Temple of Art,” Winton remembers the first time he experienced the National Gallery of Victoria as a barefoot, uncomfortable child. The experience was one of the first times he realized the power of creativity and his desire to live creatively. Now, as an adult, he notes the parts of the gallery that have become outdated and admires the changes that make the museum a more welcoming and progressive place.