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Cloudstreet by Tim Winton — neighbours together but apart

Cover image of Cloudstreet by Tim  Winton, a rambling saga of family life in Australia

Type “Cloudstreet” into a search engine and you’ll see it described over and over again as a classic of Australian fiction. The introduction to my edition actually goes one step further — Philip Hensher calls Cloudstreet “A Great Australian Novel”that “speaks for a nation” by showing its contradictions and complexities.

As a geographic outsider I’m not the best reader to judge whether such bold claims are warranted. Nor can I vouch for the authenticity and accuracy of Winton’s portrayal of life in a particular period of time — roughly speaking, from the end of WW2 to the early sixties.

Fortunately , unlike thousands of Australian schoolchildren faced with Winton’s award-winning novel, I could just enjoy the book and not worry too much about its status in the canon of literature.

Cloudstreet offers us a portrait of two working class families: the Pickles and the Lambs. Both families leave their rural homes as a result of personal tragedies, ending up sharing Number 1 Cloudstreet in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia.

Coming together in adversity

It’s a large ramshackle building, a “great continent” of a house inherited by Sam Pickles along with a cash bequest of £2000. The windfall came at a low point in his life — he’d recently lost the fingers on one hand in a fishing accident, limiting his options for employment.

The money should have been enough to keep the Pickles family comfortably well off for many years. Unfortunately Sam Pickles is an inveterate gambler, always believing that the next horse he bets on will deliver him a fortune. But of course it doesn’t and he loses all that pot of gold. Strapped for cash, he hits on the idea of renting out part of Cloudstreet to another newly arrived family — the Lambs.

This family have their own story of misfortune — their son Sansom (known as Fish) almost drowned while swimminh. Although rescued, the accident has caused permanent damage to his mental faculties.

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. 

Over the course of the next 20 years we see these four adults and nine children wrangle; laugh; love; struggle; separate and come together. Some of them leave, others leave only to return when they realise that Cloudstreet is where they really belong.

This sprawling tale of two families proved utterly compelling. Winton’s prose has a wonderful variety, a mix of lyrical, almost mystical passages; rapid minimally punctuated dialogue and Australian vernacular.

Will you look at us by the river! The whole restless mob of us on spread blankets in the dreamy briny sunshine skylarking and chiacking about for one day, one clear, clean, sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living.Yachts run before an unfelt guest with bagnecked pelicans riding above them, the city their twitching backdrop, all blocks and points of mirror light down to the water’s edge.

He gets so deeply under the skin of his characters I was completely absorbed in their lives. Each individual has their own story to tell as they lose and then find themselves again, but each strands connects with others to build a complex mesh of stories.

It seems the kind of book that can easily withstand more than one reading. You could read it purely as a saga of two families trying to get through life in the way they think best. Or you could read it as an exploration of the idea of “home” and how that changes over the course of twenty years.

Contrasting attitudes to life

Cloudstreet tells a story too about Australia and how two very different types of families respond to the changing world around them.

The Lambs are a religious family who believe you have to work hard to get anywhere in life. They have a strong entrepreneurial spirt, quickly spotting an opportunity to use their part of the house into a shop. Lester Lamb rolls up his sleeves, producing baked goods for the store and his “secret recipe” ice-cream.

His wife Oriel proves to be a born organiser who rules over the shop like a sergeant major. She’s also an astute businesswoman, not above waging war to beat off competition from a shop the other side of the rail tracks.

Lester and Oriel Lamb understand what it means to create a home — some of the warmest moments in the book come when they all gather in the kitchen to hear Lester’s stories or listen to him play the squeezebox. Family life and their children are precious to this couple.

That’s not the case in the other half of the house where the children of Sam and his wife Dolly are more or less left to fend for themselves. The Pickles parents have a relaxed attitude to life. They drink, smoke, swear and generally muddle through life from one crisis to another. Neither makes much effort to improve the condition of the house or to provide a stable environment for their children.

Where the Lambs find meaning in industry and endeavour, the Pickles find it in chance and good luck. As Sam Pickles sees it:

It was as though luck made choices, that it could think. If you greeted it, it came to you; if you shunned it, it backed away.

As the novel progresses we see how the families overcome their suspicions of each other and even come to enjoy the company of their neighbours. Does it all end happily ever after? You’ll have to read Cloudstreet yourself to decide on the answer.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

31 thoughts on “Cloudstreet by Tim Winton — neighbours together but apart

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  • Well, you beat me (a born and bred Australian) to this one! I’ve read a few bits and pieces of Tim Winton here and there, but never sat down with any of his books start to finish. I’ve got a copy of this on the shelf, but I fear the cultural cringe too much to actually pick it up. One day, one day…!

    • It’s often challenging to read something from your own country – sometimes you don’t agree with their interpretation

  • I read this long before blogging and have often thought I’d love to read it again. Your review was so enjoyable to read. As you say, the writing is gorgeous. I loved it from the opening pages as I recollect – the affectionate, generosity with which Winton treats his characters is special.

    • He does seem to love those people even when they are misbehaving like Dolly.

  • I loved this book. I loved the idea of one of the adult females, forget which family she was the mother of, who lived in a tent in the backyard. I loved the families, the setting, the concept of the story. I have loved everything T Winton has written.

    • That was Oriel Lamb who was a superb character. I wasn’t absolutely clear why she did pitch tent in the backyard though

      • I think to just get away from the chaos of the house. I can really relate to it at times. Lol

  • I’ve only read a short novel by Wonton (it riffs on the notion of a surviving Tasmanian tiger) and admired it. This looks like a chunkster though, and while I want to revisit him I’m not sure I want to invest time in this, Karen, at least not just yet, however brilliant you judge this.

    • It does take time to read so yes maybe best left until another day when you feel you have the bandwidth for it

  • I loved this when I read it years ago and you’ve made me want to read it again. I also watched an excellent TV adaptation, one of those rare ones that capture the book beautifully.

    • I knew it had been adapted for the stage but not for TV – must look that up. I could do with something engrossing to watch that isn’t crime related!

      • I know what you mean! I’m going to search out a Trollope adaptation for the depths of winter.

  • I’m a long-time TW fan, and Cloudstreet is my favourite novel – chiefly on account of the vivid characters. He’s a marvelous writer.

    • it was my first experience of his writing but now I’m keen to discover more of his work

  • Tim Winton is well represented in our libra y system, but only one copy of Cloudstreet in the whole county. You’ve made this book sound immersive and interesting – and I’ll try and get hold of it, but if one of the other Winton books winks at me when I’m in the library choosing, maybe I’ll try that too.

    • I don’t know any of his other novels (something I plan to rectify) but he has won plenty of awards for his work so there should be something good on those shelves for you

  • An old favourite that I read when it first came out. I was working as a part time bookseller and sold dozens and dozens of the paperback edition. I’ve always meant to go back and reread the book to see if it is as good as it is in my memory but am slightly frightened I won’t like it! As an aside, in Fremantle High Street there’s a writers walk with 2.4m totems at various intervals, one of which is dedicated to Tim Winton and has a lovely quote from Cloud Street. (The other writers, all local, are Recognises past and present local authors Joan London, John Boyle O’Reilly, Xavier Herbert, and Kim Scott.)

    • I had to Google John Boyle O’Reilly… *chuckle* It’s a bit cheeky to include him considering he was only in Perth for 2 years and then escaped to the US!
      But the story of the Catalpa rescue is a good one, I wonder if anyone has ever made a novel of it!

      • Yes, but he seems to have been very influential because there are a lot of references to him, and the characters he writes about, in town, including a new mural about Moondyne Joe, and a relatively new bar, Calamity’s Rod, dedicated to him, with an impressive mural overlooking it. See this pic:

        • I’ll have to check it out when I finally make my way over to Perth!

    • I have that same nervousness about books I’ve loved in the past – I don’t want to spoil that first experience.

  • I really don’t like Cloudstreet. “Winton’s prose has a wonderful variety, a mix of lyrical, almost mystical passages; rapid minimally punctuated dialogue and Australian vernacular.” and gets up my nose! I thought for a long time it was set in the Perth working class, riverside suburb I live in (it’s not). It feels familiar, but wrong. I’ve listened to it again, in the last year or so, but my prejudices remain undisturbed. I suppose I’m glad other people like it, but I won’t ever be one of them.

    • Why does it get up your nose – is it that the vernacular is all wrong or youd don’t think the community he portrays is authentic?

  • Oh I love this book! I read it many years ago and it’s one of my favorite books of all time. It hit my heart and my mind and my soul. Winton is a genius but this is his best book – I’ve rad several. Thanks for the memories.

  • The Offspring was one of those who had to read Cloudstreet at school, so I read it as well, but wasn’t much impressed. It wasn’t until I read it again much later that I realised why it is a classic, and a brilliant depiction of an Australia long gone.
    My review is here if you are interested:

    • Will take a look at your review later. Interesting that it didn’t impress you first time around but then I’ve found that with some other books. Hated Henry James Portrait of a Lady first time but second time I could get into it far more – never going to be a favourite ‘cos James is too long-winded a writer for my taste, but I did get to appreciate his novel far more

      • I think it’s mostly that we mature as readers.

        • That was certainly true in my case with Jane Austen. I didn’t understand at all why people kept talking about her “wit” when I first read her.

        • Yup. *blush* The first time I read her I was about 16, and I read it as if it were a Jean Plaidy romance.

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