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In which Netty checks into Cloudstreet … and decides to stay for a little while …

November 4, 2012

ImageI’m actually a bit embarrassed to admit I have only just gotten around to finally reading Tim Winton – at Andy’s behest in this, the (mini) Reading Challenge within a Reading Challenge. I don’t know, it seems somehow un-Australian to only now be dipping a toe into the work of this much-loved local “national living treasure” (TM), who has 10 novels (including a Vogel-winning debut and two Man Booker short-listers), plus short-story collections, numerous collated essays, half a dozen children’s books, non-fiction collaborations and even a play under his belt. It’s like owning up to a dislike for Vegemite. Un-Oz-stray-yun.

The obvious choice for a Winton novice is the 1991 novel Cloudstreet, arguably his best-known work, which has also been adapted as a play and was recently made into an acclaimed mini-series (and now at the top of my Quickflix queue). To be fair, I had always been meaning to get around to Cloudstreet; I gave a copy to my mother (whose taste runs to romance and the occasional schlockbuster) for Christmas a couple of years ago. She read it, but proclaimed it “peculiar”. I didn’t quiz her further at the time, but will need to do so now – Cloudstreet could hardly be called peculiar, although there is an ever-so-faint, surrealist strain of (David) Lynch-ianisms running throughout the passages narrated by Fish Lamb, and that business of the talking pig, and then there’s the spectre of the “living, breathing” house itself, rendered in a much more subtle, slightly (Stephen) King-ish fashion. But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Two families are at the heart of Cloudstreet – the Pickles and the Lambs – and the novel charts the intertwining of their lives across three decades, from the war years of the early 1940s to the mid-1960s. As the book opens, the Pickles – Sam and Dolly, and their children Rose, Ted and Chub – are down on their luck thanks to hapless punter Sam, whose fortunes take a further nose-dive after he loses the fingers of his right hand in a freak fishing accident. His brother Joel, with whom the family has been living at his Geraldton pub, suffers a fatal heart attack; his will stipulates that his brother inherit the huge, rambling, ramshackle Perth house at One Cloud Street – on the proviso that it cannot be sold for 20 years – and $4000, which Sam promptly loses on the horses.

Meanwhile, the rural, dirt-poor, god-fearing Lambs – Lester and Oriel, and their children Quick, Fish, Hattie, Elaine, Red and Lon – pack up their bags and head for the big smoke after the charismatic Fish is left permanently brain-damaged after another freak fishing accident. Fate washes the Lambs on to the shores of Cloud Street when they answer a classified ad in the local paper that leads them to becoming the Pickles’ tenants. Industrious and hard-working, the Lambs also establish a grocery shop in the front room that quickly becomes a prosperous smash-hit in their local neighbourhood and beyond.

And thus is the set-up for this big, sprawling family saga, stretching over some 400 pages. I have never been one for spoilers, so I am loath to go into any more detail on the plot, its many twists and its turns, on the off-chance that, like me, there are others out there who have not yet got around to reading Cloudstreet. Don’t be put off by its bulk – it is an easy, fast and compelling read, with marvellously memorable, deeply flawed characters that nonetheless significantly elicit the reader’s empathy. I was about halfway through the novel and enjoying it, but wondering if it could have done with a tighter edit; by the time I was devouring its final pages I was better equipped to more fairly see Winton’s vision for both the story and its characters.

I do have one quibble, though, and it is not as minor as it might initially sound – the novel is divided into five parts, and within these are subsections with their own little chapter headings, sometimes two or three per two pages. I found them completely superfluous and often distracting, especially when a subsection ran for only two or three paragraphs. The copy I read was a first edition borrowed from a friend; hopefully subsequent editions did away with these silly little heads.

Winton is considered one of Australia’s finest writers of the landscape, and that is certainly on show here, particularly in the section where Quick goes bush, then later when Quick, Rose, Fish and young Harry go on a road trip that takes them into the desert. A West Australian native, Winton obviously knows the country, especially his local environs, like the back of his hand. A keen surfer, his writing on the water is particularly evocative – and for a novel mostly set in the city, water still plays a central role in Cloudstreet, with all its pivotal plot elements taking place in and around the water, particularly the opening and closing chapters.

I spoke to several people – Winton fans familiar with all his books – during and after reading Cloudstreet. Just last night I went to see the new Paul Kelly doco Stories Of Me; a particularly nice touch, during the closing credits, is the listing, under each of the major players in its making, of their favourite Paul Kelly song. Similarly, Winton fans have strong opinions on their favourite among his books – I have been recommended Dirt Music, The Riders, even Breath (even though Andy says it’s probably his least favourite). Kelly is lauded for the “Australian-ness” of his music; you could certainly lay a similar charge at Winton’s writing. As I have – happily – said so many times before during this Reading Challenge, here’s another author of whom I will definitely be reading more. Sometime. Hopefully soon.

Eeegads. There are just so many books to read. So many, many books …

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