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)