Cloudstreet by Tim Winton is the best Australian novel I’ve read in several years. I preface that by saying I don’t read many Australian novels, having been disappointed in the past and wishing to “travel” through my reading.
That said, Winton’s Western Australian setting is unique enough for me to enjoy the experience and his writing is simply superb.
The book traces the fortunes and misfortunes of two rural families who move to the big smoke of Perth after different tragedies. Chronic gambler and loser Sam Pickles lost one hand in a boating accident, while the vivacious favorite son in the Lamb family, named Fish, became retarded after nearly drowning. The time setting is over two decades from 1945.
The relevance of the timeframe is that Sam inherited a large house in Perth, with a sensible covenant that he couldn’t sell it for 20 years. Everyone expected him to sell the house when the time came to cover his gambling debts.
The Pickles need money and rent out half the house to the Lambs. It’s literally split down the middle, including the back yard.
The Lambs are industrious and teetotal. The Pickles are mostly lazy and the mother, Dolly, is an alcoholic. The Lambs convert their front room into a general store and although they live poor, accumulate money and do well for themselves in their own eccentric way.
The families gradually become closer together over time. The marriage of Rose Pickles to Quick Lamb consolidates the union.
A strength of this novel is Winton’s clever development of characters and their sensitive portrayal, including the less desirable ones. Even the minor players have personalities that become likeable. The retarded boy, Fish, commands love as much as pity.
There is much humor. Sam’s philosophy in life is to believe in the “shifting shadow” of luck. He wins rarely and becomes resigned to handing over his salary from the Mint each week to the bookies. A pig given to the Lambs for Christmas fare becomes a pet and “talks” to Fish.
Part of the appeal of this book for me was the credibility of the characters; their language and idiosyncrasies. I saw some of my father’s family from the same era in both families.
Winton writes with a tight narrative, which always flows logically and in a captivating way that teases you into turning the next page.
His use of dreams and a cameo “Blackfella” confused me a little, but didn’t distract from the overall mood. I understood the imagery of a resident ghost in the house. She represented the spirit of the home, which was initially dark and gloomy. She disappeared when Rose and Quick created a window in the library and moved in with their baby Harry, thereby bringing the families together in love and happiness.
The cover of this book describes it as a “modern Australian classic”. I have to agree.