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.