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)