How do you begin to write about a book like Cloudstreet? It’s so fine, subtle and perfectly written that the reader is carried forward on the plot before he or she even realises that the book has had a transformative effect. Like Winton himself, there is something so humble about the book — it’s such a soft, generous offering — that it’s almost difficult to reconcile the honesty of the story, the lives of two flawed families, with the fireworks that it creates in terms of its illumination of the human condition.
The story follows, in a reasonably simple manner, the Pickles and the Lambs – who end up living in the same large, somewhat haunted house, Number 1 Cloudstreet, inherited by Sam Pickles. These families couldn’t be more different. Sam and Dolly Pickles are gamblers – they drink, smoke, curse; Sam loses huge amounts of money on the horses, Dolly sleeps around, and aside from renting out half of the place to the Lambs, they do nothing to improve Cloudstreet’s ramshackled appearance. The Lambs are hard working, upstanding people who transform their half of the house into a successful shop through hard work and an enterprising spirit. The families have more in common than they might appear to, though. Both have had their lives altered by terrible accidents involving the sea. Both are galvanised around their families. Both families are at the periphery of society, like the house itself.
While Rose Pickles tilts towards ‘normalcy’, these people are all special in one way or another, even with their idiosyncrasies and failings – there is something extraordinary, even magical about them. It could be the ghosts who inhabit the house they live in, or the nature of the tragedies that befall both families, leaving two of the key characters – Sam and Fish – both present and absent at the same time, life and death magically mingling in their veins:
It’s like Fish is stuck somewhere. Not the way all the living are stuck in time and space; he’s in another stuckness altogether. Like he’s half in and half out. You can only imagine and still fail to grab at how it must be. Even the dead fail to know and that’s what hurts the most. (69)
Yet we know Fish as we know Sam. Implicitly, like the way we know anyone we’ve lived with, loved, been irritated or hurt by, hated, and loved again. They are characters who become as familiar to us as the rest of this bunch: Dolly with her sharp edged, intelligent potty mouth; Rose, fired by her desire to be normal, better, different from her mother; Oriel, who subsumes her sense of failure and guilt into a Quaker style of hard work and care; or Quick, who is drawn, masochistically, to the misery of others. As the novel progresses we come to care for each of these characters and watch them each progress on a journey. Even without the magic, it’s a ruddy good story of personal development, care, family, and love – an engaging narrative progression as each character loses and finds him or herself.
The setting, as is the case with all of Winton’s novels, is as much a character as the Pickles and the Lambs are. Initially Geraldton, and then Perth in Western Australia, are all beautifully depicted, with the kind of attention that only comes with a rich, deep sense of the place being described. We see the world through a rich array of metaphor – the winter sky is “the colour of sixpence”. Rose sends herself into the “furious movement” of Perth each morning where we experience the bluster of business and see the Veterans at the RLS club. Quick wakes up in the Karri forest where he hears a roar of bees and the crackle of the bush. The river itself weaves its way through each person’s life, from its role in the two tragedies that shape the story, to the way it provides a backdrop for each epiphany that leads to personal change and growth – Quick and Fish bringing the boat back, Quick and Rose’s first real meeting, Oriel and Quick’s prawning episode where Oriel reveals her past. Everything happens on the river. The river is like a anthropomorphic god that is omniscient—the real narrative voice that underlies the story:
The river was broad and silvertopped and he knew its topography well enough to be out at night, though the old girl would have had a seizure at the thought. He never got bored with landmarks, the swirls of tideturned sand, armadas of jellyfish, the smell of barnacles and week, the way the pelicans baulked and hovered like great baggy clowns. He liked to hear the skip of prawns and the way a confused school of mullet bucked and turned in a mob. From the river you could be in the city but not on or of it. (180)
Cloudstreet illuminates a particular period of time in Australia’s history – moving from the end of WW2 to the early sixties, and conveys both the time and place magnificently in a way that will engage the reader instantly. Yes, it’s a great Australian novel, full of people and places that are both inherently part of their time and true to that space. Above all though, what elevates this book from a cracking good yarn to something that is great, is the magic. The book is rife with magic, so purely woven into the story you might miss it on a first reading. It’s a magic that comes straight from a love of humanity – a generous, funny magic that picks up on all that is truly beautiful, even amidst our flaws.
All sorts of amazing things happen in this book. There are dark ghosts, children who rise out of the ground, rivers that become sky and stars that embrace, a talking pig, a mysterious Aboriginal who walks on water, skin that glows, fish that jump out and fill a boat, a bird that poos coins. There is magic in the ordinary too – the magic of childbirth, of forgiveness, of love. The whole narrative structure is magical, bringing everything together in its striking conclusion.
Cloudstreet is a book that contains a world. It’s not just the world of the Pickles and the Lambs, compelling as that is. It’s the world of the reader. This is a book that is wonderful because it shines a light on who we are, lovingly, and with the kind of forgiving, all-inclusive care of a parent – it allows us to rejoice in ourselves.