The title of Australian novelist Tim Winton’s 2016 book The Boy Behind the Curtain has an important secondary meaning. In surfing, the phrase “behind the curtain” refers to the phenomenon when a wave pitches over the surfer’s body, enclosing them in a tubular space behind the curtain of falling water. The surfer’s sense of living in the moment while navigating the uncertainty "behind the curtain" is a prominent theme in Winton’s anthology, which is easier to describe than it is to define. With subjects as varied as his childhood, his conservation efforts, surfing, landscape, faith, and writing, Winton’s essays form a narrative which is part meditation and part memoir. Through vignettes illuminating his history and beliefs, Winton also paints a vivid picture of Australian life in a language rich and specific enough to serve as a natural lexicon.
The first few essays recount formative experiences of Winton’s childhood, starting with “The Boy Behind the Curtain,” which shares its title with the memoir. In the essay, Winton describes himself as a thirteen-year-old boy behind the “terylene” curtain at the window of his parents’ bedroom, his policeman father’s gun cocked at strangers. Although Winton caused no harm with this short-lived pretend play, he questions the toxic masculine culture which led him to equate guns with power. According to Winton, guns and violence offer an illusion of control to powerless people the world over, which is precisely why they must never be easily accessible. He expresses relief that unlike in the United States, the stricter gun laws of Australia ensure most civilians don’t have access to guns.
“Havoc” is a look at how Winton’s father’s nearly fatal accident destabilized Winton’s childhood faith in the safety of the universe. It also describes Winton’s own car crash at eighteen, which left him in recovery for months. These close brushes with life’s unexpectedness, as well as with the atmosphere of hospitals—necessitated because his wife is a nurse—informs Winton’s work as a writer and a conservationist, driving him to seize the present moment in the face of life’s impermanence.
In “A Walk at Low Tide” and “Repatriation,” Winton describes the importance of “paying attention” to the natural landscape. For Winton, to live without this attention is to be “spiritually impoverished.” The first step toward conservation is observation, as illustrated in Winton's daily documentation of the low-tide flats near his seaside town in Western Australia, where "every day there are ephemeral stipples and scratches in the sand.”
At Mount Gibson, a biodiversity hotspot till a century ago, Winton notes how the area has been “bulldozed and burned” for human settlement by successive governments, causing a devastating loss of the marsupial mammals unique to Australia. Mixed with Winton’s indictment of the government’s callous policies is his criticism about homogenizing globalization. Not only do these forces alter the natural balance, they also strip communities of local knowledge and language. As people lose the names of natural objects and species, they also lose empathy for them.
The sad fact is that the citizen on the street in Sydney will have as little idea about what a dunnart is as his counterpart in London or Chicago. For the record it is a carnivorous mouse-sized marsupial with huge ears.
Another terrible cost of bad policies is the state of Australia’s aboriginal people, who have lost “250 plus” of their languages since colonization. What’s more, Australian aboriginal communities face hazards such as lowered life expectancy, chronic health issues, poverty, and illiteracy, according to Winton.
The one ray of hope Winton locates in this scenario is nonprofits and citizens reclaiming conservation and rehabilitation efforts. Winston recounts the success of his own conservation efforts in the essay “The Battle for Ningaloo Reef,” in which...
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