Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton
As everyone knows, Tim Winton has a new novel out this year: it’s called Eyrie, and of course I have a copy and will get round to reading it in due course. But because the blogosphere and the rest of the media is awash with reviews of Eyrie, I jumped at the chance to do something different: I’ve been reading a new edition of Winton’s earlier work, the iconic Cloudstreet, now available in a sumptuous Folio Society edition.
I can’t resist Folio Society books. They are so elegantly crafted, so beautifully illustrated and such a pleasure to handle! But I also wanted to revisit Cloudstreet because the book is now over 30 years old, and an Aussie classic. However, I have to be careful how I write this… Cloudstreet is set as a school text all over the country. I don’t want to provide content for lazy plagiarists.
I first read Cloudstreet some time in the 1990s. It wasn’t my first Winton, that was That Eye, the Sky which I read in 1986, and I’ve read all Winton’s major novels, even though I’ve never really taken to his writing. Which is really rather contrary of me because he has won the Miles Franklin Award four times – for Shallows, (1984); Cloudstreet, (1992); Dirt Music (2002) and the only one I’ve reviewed here, Breath (2009). Winton has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for The Riders (1994) and Dirt Music). I bet there’s many an Aussie author who groans in dismay to find his/her book released in the same year as a Winton, because he tends to blitz every award there is, with a corresponding impact on book sales.
Cloudstreet is the book that made his reputation. It’s the story of two families, the Pickles and the Lambs, both beset by disaster but responding to it in different ways. Set in Western Australia as it emerges from World War II, the book is now remote in time and sentiment from affluent contemporary Australia because it depicts a lost world – a world of grinding poverty and hardship and an idealised value system which is long gone. As Alex Miller says in his thoughtful introduction:
Cloudstreet is the greatest Australian novel ever to have been written about the iconic and rapidly disappearing class of white Australians who gave the people of this continent its reputation as one of the finest and most generous-hearted on the planet. … Winton’s Australians were the people who are nowadays referred to as ‘true blue’ [referring to] uneducated, native-born, working-class Australians of Anglo-Celtic origin. … The class of which Winton writes was insular, self-contained and confident of the belief that they were indeed the fair dinkum Australians, and that no one but they had the right to make such a claim. They knew themselves to be descended from the Anzacs, Ned Kelly, and Dad and Dave, the blokes and sheilas celebrated by the early nationalist poets, proud battlers and no-hopers, contemptuous of authority and rules, independent and envious of no other man or woman’s place in the world. The true inheritors of God’s own country. (p. ix-x)
Miller, who famously migrated solo to Australia as an adolescent in 1953, confirms the authenticity of Winton’s characterisation. The 16-year-old migrant found himself made welcome, and accepted for what he was by these people, who were old-fashioned in their ways, staunchly egalitarian and hospitable to strangers. I was a young woman in the 1970s, and like Winton, I knew people of the generation he depicts in Cloudstreet and can vouch for the authenticity of his characterisation too. I have seen that generosity where a casual afternoon visit found the Sunday dinner being stretched to feed twelve instead of ten; where a new baby was kitted out with hand-me-downs and hand-knits from the extended family; and where anyone was welcome in their social life - which was based around birthdays and Christmas, the footy and the pub.
But I also saw a darker side of that generation not depicted in Winton’s nostalgic representation of this class. The welcome and sense of belonging that Miller and Winton celebrate was restricted to anyone of their own class and ethnicity. Anti-intellectualism was the norm. Cracks in family cohesion appeared when post-war affluence improved the education and living standards of the next generation who were often then judged ’up themselves’. There was also unedifying tension – and sometimes outright hostility – if a new bride or groom was ‘an ethnic’ from the post-war immigration boom. And you could only ’belong’ if you conformed. There was no place for same-sex relationships, and women who wanted more than a domestic role didn’t belong either in the home or in the workplace. So no wonder this book is on Year 12 study lists: reading Winton’s novel from a 21st century perspective offers plenty of opportunities for discussion about this author’s nostalgia for that era.
I bet that there’s also fruitful discussion contrasting 21st century poverty with the poverty of Cloudstreet. Dolly and Sam Pickles are no-hopers. When the story begins Sam is getting by with a job mining for guano, but a careless moment with a winch rips his fingers from his right hand, his work hand. Things are grim until a chance inheritance finds Dolly and Sam Pickles landlords of a large house in Perth. Feckless and idle, Sam soon gambles away the windfall cash: £2000, which was an enormous amount of money in those days. So Sam subdivides the house and the Lambs move in, bringing their work ethic and thrifty ways with them, and before long the locals think that they own the house and that the Pickles are the luckless tenants. Dolly, lazy, blowsy, and often drunk, is extremely resentful about that, but Sam, emblematic of the role superstition plays in the novel, puts it down to the Shifting Shadows of Luck…
All these characters are on personal journeys towards some kind of fulfilment, but Winton also tells their back-stories to repel any tendency the reader might have towards sitting in judgement. Oriel Lamb, for example, is a hard woman, unyielding in her ambitions and unmindful of any damage she might cause. Her own child, the brain-damaged ’Fish’ is a kind of moral barometer – and he can’t remember her name. She feels so alienated that she moves into a tent in the backyard (a scene poignantly depicted in the illustration by Sam Nash, wish I could show it to you, but you can see his style here). The reader is more than half way through the novel before this short, compelling passage:
Hell is like this. It’s this cowering in the bottom of the cellar far from the smouldering trapdoor, between pumpkins and tubs of apples. It’s the smell of a karri forest rising into the sky and the bodies of roos and possums returning to the earth as carbon and the cooking smell falling through the dimness like this. Trees go off like bombs out in the light and the cauldron boils and spits all about. Hell is being six years old and wondering why you’re alone in the dark and no one else has come down yet. It’s the sound of your own breathing, the salty stink of your bloomers, the way the walls have warmed, the flickering cracks, the screams like a thousand nails being drawn, the hammering, throttling noises, the way the rats are panicking and throwing themselves against things. Hell is that shallowbreathing trance you slip into, the silence that goes on and on until it’s grown outside you and fallen on the world. Hell is where you hear noises in the world again, though nothing in yourself, and men’s voices make your throat cry so raw that light bolts into the cellar with a gout of ash and charcoal and the burning taste of air. Hell is when you’re dragged out past the black bones and belt buckles that are the others who never came down, out into the powder-white earth beneath the sky green as bile and swirling with vapours. Hell is the sight of your father’s face streaked with the ride, the twitching cast on him, the registration of facts. Hell. It’s only you left, and you’re awake. (p. 175)
Have you ever woken from a nightmare where you’ve relived a traumatic experience? I have, and like Oriel I’ve felt that urgent need to check that my loved ones were safe:
Oriel woke and it wasn’t quite dawn. She lay there in the dimness until her heart settled back a little. With the edge of the blanket she wiped her eyes. Without washing, without making out her daily work plan, she left the tent ungowned and ran to the house, gumbling along like a spud crate to go room to room in the dim house checking that all of them were still there, that it wasn’t only her left again. All of them breathing in their beds, helpless and sweet in sleep. (p. 175)
Tim Winton’s writing is distinctive because of this quality of empathy, the capacity to get under the skin of his characters and depict the inner being that is so rarely revealed to others.
Cloudstreet is a bittersweet tale of dysfunctional families that is romantic in the literary sense of the word. In families where much is unsaid, Winton depicts emotion mainly through action. These inarticulate characters confront the sublime, both as a spiritual experience and as participants in the world of nature even though they live in a working class suburb of Perth. They struggle through experiences without ever communicating their joys and fears until they are in extremity. Rose, and Quick, for instance, both long to return to Cloudstreet, but find it near impossible to say so. It is even harder for their parents to express love, and yet the love of family is what binds these people together.
Winton doesn’t just give a voice to the intellectually disabled character Fish, it’s as if he’s given voice to people who don’t usually speak up for themselves, and made them noble.
Author: Tim Winton
Publisher: The Folio Society, 2013
Source: review copy courtesy of The Folio Society
The Folio Society