The Captive Wife – book review

The captive wife, by Fiona Kidman

This is a whale of a tale set in the days when a whaler could take a child bride to a remote New Zealand whaling station – when marauding war parties, cannibalism and shipwreck were common and life was fragile – and he could wonder why it all went so wrong.

Fiona Kidman’s The captive wife is a real New Zealand legend.   Jackie Guard was 40 when he married the spunky 14 year old Betty and took her from the Garrison town of Sydney to the whalers’ den of Te Awaiti in the Malborough Sounds.  Theirs is a real history and journals and letters of the time often mention them, particularly after the events recounted in this book that turn Betty into a bit of a celebrity.

Of course things often do go wrong, in a number of ways, but the main action of the story is based on a shipwreck when the Guards are returning to the station after a trip to Sydney and are smashed up on the Taranaki Coast. This is in 1834, before Governor Hobson and the Wakefields, before any kind of systematic colonisation of New Zealand or any semblance of British law, when the only force driving the foreigners in the country was exploitation.  The castaways are attacked, many killed and Betty and her children are captured by the Ngāti Ruanui Māori.

Jacky Guard is released to bring a ransom, but returns four months later on the Royal Navy’s man-o’-war Alligator from Sydney and a captain hell bent on teaching the Māori a lesson. This is England’s first armed conflict with Māori, and we are still learning from the lesson today. 

I guess you want to know what happened to Betty in those four months she spent in captivity, the book is called the captive wife, after all.  Well, first she witnessed the cannibalism of her murdered crewmen. And then she was struck by a tomahawk, which was deflected by a comb in her hair (so the legend goes, and you can view both the comb and Jacky Guard’s pistol at Te Papa) then her infant son was taken from her to be trained in Māori ways. And then … well, things changed.  She fell under the protection of a chief called Oaoiti who was kind to her and a man in extreme contrast to her rather nasty husband Jacky…

The story starts, like most stories of the time, with a male voice, and Jackie is wondering where he can lay his poker. But soon we hear Betty’s voice and female viewpoint, and later she tells her story to an older, sympathetic friend. I really like the duality of this, she and Jackie have very different eyes on the same world.

The research Fiona Kidman has done for this book is spanking and I never doubt that the fictionalised parts could well have happened in that time and place, though the telling of the story is often deliberately one-sided and told by unreliable, limited or misunderstood narrators.  The complexity of the telling sure make this a great read and I highly recommend it for an intelligent slap of New Zealand’s wild history.

If  The captive wife is a suggestion for a book club read, Elizabeth Welsh of Auckland University gives an excellent academic summary review on the themes, metaphors and perspectives here: The captive wife. But do read the book first.

The Naturalist – book review

The naturalist, by Thom Conroy (more fan fiction than book review!)

I feel a bit cheeky writing a review of Thom Conroy because he is a teacher of writing and I am a student (different institutions and I’ve never met him), but also because he’s writing about my blokes. Or I’m writing about his.

It’s something you do need to come to terms with, when you write historical fiction, that your characters are not, in fact, your blokes. Thom Conroy’s book, The Naturalist, is the story of Ernst Dieffenbach, who was a member of the New Zealand Company’s 1839 colonial expedition.  He sailed on the Tory with The Colonel and Jerningham Wakefield, Charles Heaphy, Captain Chaffers and their gang.

They’re all historical characters (and my goodness, they are characters) and Thom Conroy has written a wonderful fictional account of how they all got along together. Which is not very well, most of the time, except for the rather gracious Charles Heaphy, who got along with everybody.

I’m a student this year, of creative writing, and I’m writing a book about the above mentioned Jerningham Wakefield, one of the more outrageous characters in Conroy’s tale. I have my first draft of 100,000 words and Jerningham has romped through them, heartily pissing off Dieffenbach, the Colonel, Captain Chaffers and even the mild mannered Heaphy. (No one, anywhere, has ever written a bad word about Heaphy. He’s one of God’s good men, everyone says so, and every story needs one good man.)

But I am writing about Jerningham and I love him very much, in the way a mother loves her son; with indulgence and exasperation and a hope that he will, one day, grow out of the booze.  Conroy doesn’t love him so much. I’m glad I wrote my book before reading Conroy’s, because I formed my judgement first and when you meet a new bloke, first impressions count.

They’re up for grabs, these characters, and I’m starting to realise that using historical people in a novel is a bit like writing fan fiction.  There’s no copyright, they’re been dead well over 100 years and any author can take them anywhere.  Dieffenbach, Jerningham, Heaphy and co. all wrote compelling journals so there is plenty of source material, and once you get gripped by the Victorian character of these extraordinary men a kind of magic takes place – they come alive, start arguing with one another and acting up.  I know Jerningham comes down at night and raids my booze cupboard.

Thank you, Thom Conroy. Reading The Naturalist makes me feel we’ve met through mutual friends, and you’ve told me a story about them in a new way, and added to my understanding of the lives of these tenacious, complex men.

The Eight Mountains – book review

The Eight Mountains, by Paulo Cognetti

I’m often asked to recommend books for blokes.

While I hesitate to divide literature into shades of pink and blue, I’m going to put my neck out here and say I think there is a difference in the way men and women experience books. I could probably draw an intersection pie chart with a crossover middle bit (there is a big chunk that belongs to women alone and a smaller chunk for hard-core boys – and I don’t mean that in  top-shelf kind of way, I mean car chases and adventures and explosions).

I belong to a bloke’s book club, which is very different to the all women clubs I have belonged to where we talk about the symbolism and the metaphors and the lovely writing. The boys are a bit more nuts and bolts and they want the ideas without particularly worrying about the package.

Paulo Cognetti doesn’t wow with fancy writing here.  This is sparse prose, cleanly cut, cool and clear as the mountains (oops – a simile, cut it out!) It’s the coming of age story of a nice Italian boy called Peitro who gets irritated by his father and doesn’t seem able to find a way back to him, which is very sad but so very real, I thought.

He also loses his childhood friend during adolescence, a local peasant boy from the village where Peitro’s family holiday so his father can climb the mountains.  But he finds Bruno again and they climb over a few obstacles into an adult friendship and the kind of kinship that escaped Pietro with his dad.

Pietro’s father goes uphill and his son chooses the path of less obsession, as most teenagers would, down in the village and then out in the world. But he is his father’s son and later in life his mountain backdrop is the Himalayas.  It is Bruno who manages to meet Peitro’s father on his own terms, you can’t blame the old man for welcoming the company of the substitute son.

What a lot father and son would have had to talk about together if a) they could articulate their feelings and b) they would talk to each other. See why I think this is a bloke’s book? Blokes know this.

Later, Bruno and Peitro together build the Italian mountain equivalent of a man cave but they take turns in their isolation, the lonely setting begetting lonely lives. You know it can’t go any other way.  Don’t go there blokes, go back down to the village, don’t lose your community. Reach out. Arrgggh. Blokes!

No car chases or explosions, but plenty of adventures up mountains and into the soul.

 

 

 

 

Decline & Fall on Savage Street – book review

Decline & Fall on Savage Street, by Fiona Farrell

A lot happens. It says this in the blurb.

So don’t go thinking you can just whizz through this as you would a normal novel. You need to go in with the right attitude, with a predisposition to enjoy Fiona Farrell (I do!) and a realisation that some novels don’t have obvious characters you get to know and love and follow on a journey.

The character on a journey in Farrell’s Decline & Fall on Savage Street is a house.  It took me a while to understand this, (and apparently she has written a non-fiction book about this house so perhaps I should have come better prepared) so for a while I floundered around with characters disappearing just as I got interested and a whole new set of people coming in. It reads more like a set of short stories, chronologically spanning 100 years, with each story bringing characters who live in the same house with their personalities and tribulations – from our perspective we see a house, but of course for every new arrival it is their home, they move their baggage in and own it.

As a collection of short stories this book is very rewarding and the format works really well, I love the fact that we get to know the house better than the characters themselves because we’ve been inhabiting it, along with all the former tenants, since it was built.

But she’s clever, Fiona Farrell, and this is also a story of another character that lives under the bank of the river, undisturbed (mostly) by the turmoil of change and war and earthquakes. In contrast to the lot that happens to the humans above, nothing happens to the eel for a very, very long time. Or if something happens, it is the drop of a leaf onto the water. We feel her ageing not in the time it takes to read the pages, but in the span of frantic, scrabbling activity that happens ashore. Her story made me feel old. But every story has a climax, and even for the eel, eventually something happens.

Each human chapter starts and ends with a missing line which drove me mad. I guess it is to show we are dipping in and out of a story, but this is a book for intelligent readers and we know that. A kind editor should have said, let’s not do this.

I wont specifically remember any of the characters in this story, they passed by too fast,  but the house and the eel will stay with me forever.

Also by Fiona Farrell, if you love good New Zealand writing, is:
Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – Book Review

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – Book Review

Mr Allbones’ Ferrets, by Fiona Farrell

If you’re a library browser, pick this one up – although in the Hastings City Library you’ll have to look in the Science Fiction category (and I’m not sure whether to be the smart-arse and tell them or not).

Fiona Farrell’s Mr Allbones’ Ferrets is lovely historical fiction set in my favourite era, mid-19th Century, when those Victorians were exporting their exuberant passions all over the globe and wreaking havoc on the balance of things.

It’s a strangely paced book – all build up to the journey, and then the shock and resolution is hasty. Farrell wrote this over a decade (and many books) ago and I’ll review her latest book next (Decline and Fall on Savage Street) which is a masterpiece of pace – though again, unconventional.

There’s lots of unconventionality to enjoy in Mr Allbone. He is a young poacher and his speciality is ferrets, which he uses to flush out rabbits for the pot. He has a clutch of young ‘uns at home to feed – brothers and sisters. His mother lies beneath the wild garlic outside St Peter’s wall (a typically understated, but telling phrase). Along with the nest at home Allbones himself is ferret-like; a “skinny lad, the runt of the litter who had grown quick and cunning and able to squeeze his way though any gap or cranny, scaling soffit and drainpipe, up trees, under hedges.”

Farrell gives us lots of fascinating detail about ferret life: catching, keeping, illnesses and breeding. Lots about breeding, how to put the cob to the slut, never the other way around or he could kill her, leave them for a couple of ferocious hours and then sometimes it is necessary to drag the cob off because they don’t know when to stop. Etc.

Allbones has the job of collecting ferrets to take to the colony of New Zealand because previous settlers took rabbits. You can sing it to the tune of:  I Know an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly.

He (of course) falls for the beautiful and enigmatic Eugenia, whose thoughts and feelings remain obscure. She is the granddaughter of Allbones’ employer and is both extremely observant of animals and beguilingly naive of people. Poor kid.

The period detail is expertly executed and full of sound and colour. Farrell is particularly evocative with her smells; the stench of 412 humans, 202 caged ferrets, 66 stoats, 82 weasels and 3200 pigeons (plus stray rats, mice, seabirds and the odd shark dissected on deck) in a tub in the tropical heat seems to be part of my memory now, as if I had been on board the Adam and Eve as she sailed south. It is as unpleasant as the story that is unexpectedly burst open as they race across the roaring 40s to New Zealand.

There’s an earlier name swap which hangs over the book and for which I expect a resolution which doesn’t happen. That’s distracting. And the whimsical, rather emotionless ending is disturbing. But the Victorians were a disturbing lot, with their twisted morality and God given authority to take what they want and rearrange the world to their liking.

And, often as not, they got away with it.

It’s a quick book, a good one as a Book Club read on the lighter side but still with lots of fascinating topics, big and small, to discuss and excellent writing from a very polished New Zealand author.

 

Here’s another Fiona Farrell, very different, equally good: Decline & Fall on Savage Street – book review

 

 

 

Golden Hill – Book Review

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

Oh, what a lot of fun this book is! Step off the ship in the  New York harbour of 1746 with Richard Smith, an entertaining young wag with a cheeky way about him, as he looks and smells and gets into all sorts of trouble hanging around town for 60 days waiting for his £1,000 cheque to clear.

Finance was complicated in those days – lots of currencies in paper and coin and gold – and Smith had a very large cheque. Why? He’s not telling. Not us, not the merchants to whom he presents his cheque and not any of the worthies about town who think perhaps, he is a French spy.  This is the puzzle that keeps us turning the pages and the American gossips on their toes.

I would have been happy with a few more clues to the mystery, though some of the blokes at book club claimed to have been suspicious in the right direction, so maybe I was just being thick. It was one of those annoying plots where the almighty twist is revealed in the last chapter and you have to read the whole thing over again in the know. Sometimes I want to know the score before the game, especially if it’s a brilliant win.  I was irritated by  Life of Pi  for this reason – did anyone [spoiler alert] guess the tiger was the cook all along? Or who the annoying guest narrator was in Chidley’s The Wish Child?

Actually, an odd narrator jumps into Golden Hill too, just a couple of times, and appears at the end as the unlikely author. I bet Spufford had to argue to get that one past his editor.

But read this book for the creaking of rigging from the ships riding at anchor and the stink of the town: “A little fish, a little excrement; guts here, shit there; but no deep patination of filth, no cloacal rainbow for the nose in shades of brown, no staining of the air in sewer dyes.”  Yum.

Look up cloacal if you don’t know what it means. I love a book that has better vocab than my spell check.

And here’s a description of a staircase that puts you inside an old, dark, Dutch house (think of the rich tones in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring): “Stray gleams of polish showed the placing of the banisters and newel posts; picture frames set faint rumours of gold around rectangles of darkness or curious glitters too shadowed to make out, as if Lovell had somehow collected, and drowned, a stairwell’s-worth of distant constellations.”

Lots of his descriptions are like this; layered, multi-sensual, slightly chaotic.

There is a character cast that reflects the theme of the book, which boils down to the fact that things are not what they seem. “I know why a magician claps his hands,” says the inconstant Tabitha, who begins as the pretty daughter of the banker but turns into so much more: trickster, betrayer, love interest, caustic fence, forgiver, and eventually – well. Read the book. She is one of the most interesting characters I have met for a long time, but you have to work it out. They didn’t know in the 18th Century.   Septimus is not just the foppy Governor’s man, Terpie takes her clothes off, Smith shocks the town and the slave Archilles – but here again the author claps his hands and your attention is diverted elsewhere.

I am respecting the tradition of book reviews here by keeping mum, but there is a VERY BIG ELEPHANT on this page and I want to tell you to come back when you have read the ending so we can discuss what a £1,000 buys in the market in New York and what it all means. Did you think it was just a romping travel story?

Clap clap. Think again.

 

 

 

Sticking with Pigs – Book review

Sticking with pigs, by Mary-anne Scott

A fourteen year old boy, wrapped lovingly in cotton wool, goes out into the New Zealand bush with his uncle on a hunting expedition.

His parents have good cause to worry. The boy’s named Wolf, so you know they’re not precious by nature (named for Wolfgang Mozart, but sounds like his parents love a rough diamond to me). But Wolf has a chronically sick brother whose illness, as it would, dominates every safety decision and going hunting is not a walk in the park.

Lots of kids say they’d like to go hunting. I’ve never hunted, but I have friends who say they’d like to come tramping with me – a shadow version of a hunt but involving going bush with plenty of frightening-lite experiences. Mostly the friends are all talk and no trousers; when you start describing the hill tracks and the bare huts and the long-drops the enthusiasm wanes.

To Wolf’s credit, he trains up and off he goes with his uncle Jem and the dogs and the knife (no rifle, because to appease Wolf’s gun-shy parents, as the title says, they’re sticking with pigs), up the long haul to the ridge line, deep into the NZ bush. Scott doesn’t give a location, could be anywhere, but feels like the Ruahines to me.

If a kid can learn instinct, this is where he learns it.

There are wasps and pig shit, steeper and steeper hills, gullies, water and bush. I won’t give the story away but yes, there’s a pig. Then the trouble starts and Wolf gets his coming-of-age challenge slammed down on top of him, as raw and as kiwi as you like.

There’s a girl and a man’s mate at the edge of the story. I recognise both these characters. She’s an outdoor chick, handy with a GPS and long treks up the hills, practical, good in a crisis. I can see why Wolf fancies her. Uncle Jem’s mate has a pre-packed rescue kit and will walk through the night, no question, not much conversation. Everyone needs a mate like him.

Sticking with Pigs is probably aimed at reluctant young teen readers. But it’s also great entertainment for avid middle aged story-gobblers.

 

 

 

 

Chappy – book review

Chappy, by Patricia Grace

Chappy, by Patricia Grace, is a domestic story of a community whose relationships are entwined and confusing in the way real life is confusing.

“I told you that Aki was your uncle by double adoption. That first adoption was when Dorothea became mother to Moana-Rose and me, and we became his sisters.”  The timeline jumps around and the narrators switch about, it’s a rambling story that could be told by mates sitting around on old sofas with a few beers, interrupting each other and backtracking. Some incidents feel honest and factual, others edited with the retelling. This is the way family histories are, and there is truth in both.

The catalyst for the story being told is the (dare I say, Gen-Y) crisis of young Daniel in Switzerland, of New Zealand descent, wanting to find himself. He is the investigative reporter, if you like. I think the discovery of his family helps to heal him. I like to think so, anyway, although the story is not about him. “There’s a much more interesting story than one of a spoilt brat with his own bank account who had to try and kill himself…”

For me, the breadline living of the whanau that Daniel finds back home is a pretty typical mid-century NZ story, Maori or Pakeha. Rural life was precarious: a lot of self sufficiency, some number 8 wire, generosity and sharing, the value of a storyteller to an introverted community, both the welcoming and the fear of strangers. The necessity of going away and how grounded you feel when you make it back.

Chappy Star is a stranger, a Japanese stowaway on a ship. Maori seaman Aki stumbles across him and takes him home to the marae, where he finds kindred spirits. The differences between ghost-like Chappy and the warm and candid Oriwa, with whom he falls in love, are made to appear superficial – language, culture, nationality are nothing beside their attachment. Their love survives years of racially induced separation and misunderstandings. Oriwa understands this as she disentangles her family stories for Daniel. Maybe we all need to tell our lives as stories to understand them.

The novel is about roots and coming home – from Hawaii, where Aki washes up, from Switzerland where Daniel is born, and the confusion that ensues when home means two or more places. Chappy weaves between his cultural home in Japan, his adopted home in Hawaii and his spiritual home with Oriwa in New Zealand.

The story of Moonface made me cry. There is a lost child in many stories, but none so poignantly as here.  Moonface is Aki’s adored little brother.  At the end of one long afternoon, Moonface insists on following Aki to the spring, but he lies down in the ferns and falls asleep. Aki fills the billy, and when he turns around the boy is gone. In his mind, forever,  is “- the cold spring water, the silver tin, water silvered, the creaking birds, the pouring, the boy invisible, the unspeaking leaves, the trail of torches, the voices calling, the crying, the wailing of all the grandmothers in the world, the waiting, the ferny nest.”  It seems natural that Aki would absorb his lost brother into his soul to become his moral compass, the well of his tenderness. “Go home,” Moonface says, when Aki has been away at sea too long and needs to get his feet back on family ground.

Patricia Grace writes with lovely, sparse descriptions. Aki: “I was at the woodpile sawing stove-lengths from manuka trunks I’d brought down from the slopes. About mid-morning. There was mist soft-footing about the hills, grey like old photos.” It’s all you need, a whole scene implied from a good choice of words.

There’s a moral to Chappy, which is spelled out very clearly (in case you missed it) as Daniel sums up the story at the close.  He was born of the generation that left the home fires, and now is a wealthy outsider looking back in. “…I am who I am. I understand that now. I’m not about to chuck it all away and go barefoot, and I don’t wannabe a wannabe. So, no matter where I go or what else I undertake, I’ll continue to increase my understanding of this part of myself that I embrace with all my heart. I’ll keep in touch, work back and forth from wherever I am in the world and contribute from the depth and core of me.”

There you go, kids.

Potiki – book review

Potiki, by Patricia Grace

Not sure how I grew up in a kiwi bookshop without having read this. It would be on my list of books to recommend to new New Zealanders, as well as to oldies like me who missed it. It is a description of a rural Maori community and a way of life that most of us are probably aware is part of our history, but we haven’t been inside.  In Potiki, Patricia Grace invites us in.

This is a simple story of good verses evil, weak versus strong, county v commerce, tangata whenua v greedy imperialists.  Basically, it’s a book about the imbalance of power, told from the viewpoint of the extended rural family whose lives are threatened by the Dollarman who will bulldoze away their traditional lifestyle and smother their ancestral lands with rather obvious bad things: night clubs, golf, a zoo of trained whales and seals.  The reader needs to get past this very clichéd plot and enjoy the Maori characters, several of whom tell the story in their very distinct voices.

Roimata is the strong sensible woman at the centre of the community, and tells a lot of the story. She is a balance between her children who go away to university and come home with skills and ideas, and her husband Hemi, who believes in the old ways, working the land like his ancestors did, feeding the family from the garden and the sea, trusting in the land to provide all they need.  If school doesn’t suit the other kids, teach them traditional ways at home – Maori science and folklore. To Grace’s credit, she doesn’t paint this with a rose wash and the poverty is raw.  You do get the sense that these are people living on the edge and that subsistence living is, in the long term, unsustainable.

Roimata and Hemi’s adopted son Toko is physically handicapped but has a sixth sense, and this mystical element blurs the edges of reality enough that disbelief taints the rest of the story.  Once fantasy is out of the bag like that anything can happen, and the story entwines with myth and you don’t know what to believe.  There may be deeper parallels here, between Toki and Maui or Christ, but they take a bit of delving and this complicates an otherwise simple story.

Mary, Toko’s birth mother, is a colourful personality treated sympathetically both by Grace and her characters. She has a role in the story and the community. Her intellectual disabilities shape but don’t define her, and she thrives in the loving community.

And it is the loving community that really is the crux of the book – no one is marginalised, everyone is welcomed and you find yourself rooting for this most precarious way of life and deeply saddened to know that it is disappearing, or gone.

There are many Maori words and no glossary which has raised an issue with many readers – to me, this feels inclusive rather than alienating. Use your own sixth sense.  Or google.

Patricia Grace chooses her words well and is a beautifully understated storyteller. Potitki challenged some of my long held assumptions. I wish I had read it earlier. I went straight on to read Chappy.

The Boy Behind the Curtain – book review

The Boy Behind the Curtain, by Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a shy bloke. He’s a West Australian surfer who has list of accolades for his literary work and by all accounts has been very industrious, often behind-the-scenes, in saving the wild, natural spaces of Australia. All credit to him for this. I feel I should love him.

I think the reason I don’t might be the shyness.

The Boy Behind the Curtain – what does that promise if not a great reveal? He’s going to let us in and introduce us to the man behind That Eye, The Sky, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music. (All great reads, BTW, told by a thinking Australian). But does The Boy Behind the Curtain fulfill its promise and take us into his head?  Here are a collection of good stories, grouped together as an autobiography, but I’m not feeling personal passion. He’s still a writer telling stories at a narrator’s arm’s length.

The first two chapters, on his habit of pointing a gun at passers by from behind the curtain and an endless ramble on 2001: A Space Oddessy were an odd opening choice, neither seemed to illustrate a thread. I suppose he became an author, so had people in his sights, and there was a good line about space junk “every new marvel is on its way to being landfill” that could lead to his later environmentalism. But do these incidents define his childhood enough to warrant this focus?

It’s a strange place to start.

There are a great couple of chapters on near fatal accidents – a stranger’s, his father’s and his own, which are personal and raw. But then there are pages on his childhood car, a huge chunk on Sunday religion which yes, must have played a big part in his life but could have been much tighter in the telling.

All through this book I’m waiting for something. We hear about his dad – including a rather personal incident I’ll bet his dad would rather be forgotten, we get a mention of a sibling. His mum gets a wee look in. There is a hint of a wife somewhere in the distance. At some stage there’s bound to be a bit about writing books, do you think? He’s “Australian’s greatest novelist” according to the blurb (Peter Carey, anyone?)  Family and writing – two pretty big topics. So back to the book…

There is a long essay about a lecturer of whom he is rather scathing during her tenure, seeming to agree with his classmates that “at the time they felt they’d learnt nothing useful from her.” But she goes on to be famous and Winton is almost sycophantic in his retrospective regard for this “genteel old lady” (she was 55. Watch it, Tim). We get stories of her literary successes, her book launches, her promotional and business style, her clever repartee. This is the behind-the-curtain writing story we don’t get regarding Winton himself.  There is barely a mention of his writing before he is on a cool environmental crusade and is suddenly billed as the “celebrity activist”  brought out to bring in the crowds, the bait to get the press along. Hang on – when, how, did he get famous? Is he too modest to tell us that all this time he was writing and getting accepted by publishers, growing a following, receiving awards?

And, I have to know. Where is the love?  On page 189 he goes whale watching with his wife, to whom we have not been, and never are introduced. They met at school, she’s a nurse. Call me a romantic, but who you love and how you love and what happens to you through love and how you deal with love’s confusions is intrinsic to who you are.  We may have been invited behind the brick wall, but the curtain is firmly pulled. This enormous omission frustrated me throughout the book.

But on to the good bits, of which there are many.

His environmental activism in saving a remote West Australian reef is an inspiring essay. The decency and and camaraderie of those involved, even among opponents, is heartening. He calls it a “lesson in personal prejudices,” and we’ve probably all been there.

Winton always writes beautifully of landscape and seascape.  There are lovely passages of littoral regions. I looked this up, it technically means the shore line but he put in my mind an evocative image of that magic place where the wet sand meets the dry, or where the scrubby edge of desert meets the salt pans. “The littoral – that peculiar zone of overlap and influx…”

He shares the aspect of his daily life that includes dolphins, whales and all kinds of sea creatures (but not the wife, children, mother, friends – should I read something into that?).  “The Wait and the Flow” piece is a sufie/writing metaphor, and I guess the “curtain” of the title is also a surfy nod – that mysterious space behind a breaking wave.

And the whole book is scattered with read-them-twice metaphors. He found the story of Space Odyssey “a big shiny wheel that seemed a little short of hand-holds” (I take it back, maybe it was a defining moment), a Hillman sedan that “smelt like an abandoned cinema” – we had one of those. Urban greenies and rural business people are “the facially pierced and the bark-knuckled”. I like the indignity he suffers when kicked out the the Coral Bay pub for being barefoot after 6 p.m. There are standards.

He ends with a metaphor of an Art Gallery visit – child to man, which seems retrospectively contrived for the theme. He first enters the NGV barefoot and cowering but years later strides out “like a man in boots”.

Most of these chapters have been published before.  As a collection of articles they are interesting, sometimes provoking. But they are a strange choice for a  autobiography, billed on the cover as:  “A deeply personal book, one that throws much light on the reclusive Winton as a man and as a writer.”  It really doesn’t. The curtain twitches, but we only glimpse the outline of the boy.