Cloudstreet: A Novel was Tim Winton’s third, and really his break out novel, and was first published in Australia in 1991. He wrote his first novel as a 19 year old college student and never looked back. I’ve had a few days to think over this novel, and book club discussion to feed into my thoughts as well.
Cloudstreet is basically about two families, each surviving some personal tragedy, who end up living together in an old house on Cloudstreet in Perth for roughly twenty years.
Sam and Dolly Pickle and their three children inherit the house. Sam is a compulsive gambler whose life is ruled by luck and the “shifty shadow.” After an accident leaves Sam unable to work, it is only because they inherit a house that the Pickles have a roof over their heads. Wisely, Sam’s brother has stipulated that the house can not be sold for twenty years.
The Lamb family consists of Lester and Oriel and their six children. When the favorite son is revived after a near-drowning, the entire family has trouble coming to terms with the miracle of his life being overshadowed by the brain damage he will never recover from. The Lambs leave their home because “You can’t stay in a town when everything blows up in your face – especially the only miracle that ever happened to you.” They arrive in Perth looking for a place to land just as Sam Pickle has come up with the scheme to rent out half of the house in order make a little money.
With these two families, and the house which becomes a character in it’s own right, Winton weaves a brilliant family epic. The Pickles continue to thrive or flounder based on the ebb and flow of the shifty shadow. In contrast, the Lambs open a grocery store and are determined to survive by hard work and the driving will of Oriel.
The characters are all brilliantly drawn and developed, but the real magic comes from the way they all interact. Even when some of the children leave home to find themselves, they can’t escape from the hold that Cloudstreet has over them. Although the individual characters often seem to feel lost within Cloudstreet, they realize they can not be complete without it.
Winton does not use traditional chapters in Cloudsteet. The book is broken into 9 formal numbered chapters, but segments from a single paragraph to a few pages in length are broken apart by headings. This is very effective in reinforcing to the reader how each character stands alone, but not for long.
The book is very Australian. There is quite a bit of aussie slang used that some in bookclub found distracting. The novel takes place from 1944-1964 and has been praised for being representative of post-war working class Australia. I don’t often reread books, but I think Cloudstreet deserves a second go round. I think there is a lot to the writing that I missed the first time, and knowing the story would take nothing away from the enjoyment. Upon reflection, it just gets better. Winton’s other novels will also make my to-read list.