I need to say up front that I write this review after marking a lot of essays written on this text. I may, as is understandable, be slightly over it at the moment. However, I see this review as a chance to pull this text back from the precipice that is my classroom experience and into the warmth of the bedside lamp.
I am not really one for Australian fiction generally and I certainly don’t like straight up and down stories of the good old Aussie battler but I found myself reading Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet as the most likely choice to replace a novel leaving the English list at the end of 2013. The novel facing extinction was The Life of Pi and I had liked it quite a bit but the students had never warmed to it. Faced with Winton’s phonebook and a story that spanned twenty years I wasn’t convinced I was onto a winner here either.
I had never read Cloudstreet prior to checking it out for class but I had worked with Winton’s shorter fiction in several collections of short stories. I really enjoyed them and found that he was able to focus on the interesting peculiarities of ordinary people. In short his works had helped me to realise that my weirdness just made me normal. That had been a bittersweet moment. So, as I worked my way through the far longer Cloudstreet, I was surprised to find the same sense of connection with these characters. They’re a weird mob and not many of them have many redeeming features but they felt right. I got them … well, not Dolly – she’s as mad as a cut snake.
Cloudsteet follows the lives of two families who independently fall on difficult times. Coming from remote locations in Western Australia both families find their way to an adolescent Perth at the end of the Second World War. The Pickles could be defined by their shared sense that luck is out to get them and it doesn’t matter what they do that ‘shifty shadow’ is going to strike them one way or the other. Sam, the gambling addicted father, has lost the fingers on one hand in a work accident and comes to inherit the house at Number One Cloud Street. Finding it hard to keep afloat, with Sam losing all their savings on the races, they take in the Lamb family. The Lambs fled Margret River in shame, having believed their son Fish had been saved by God from drowning only to discover he wasn’t brought all the way back. Fish’s intellectual disability causes the Lambs to lose their faith in God and spend most of the text searching for something else to place their faith in. These two families share the house but not much else as they seem to be polar opposites in every way.
Still, the tale woven is one that explores how we must come together to overcome hardship. It certainly isn’t an easy road and all of the characters find it tough, but eventually they show the reader that there is hope to be had from the struggle. For me it was Lester that I found the most uplifting and inspiring character. Lester Lamb is the father figure, to some extent for both families as Sam isn’t much chop. Lester gives everything for his family and when his religious faith is challenged he places all his faith in his tribe. His whole life is spent in service for his kids and wife and he doesn’t get much thanks for it. His idea to turn the front room of their half of the house into a shop and sell all manner of groceries, including the pasties and ice cream he becomes famous for, are just one aspect of his ability to make the best of what he has.
Winton is somehow able to tell a story about these ramshackle souls and make you start to root for them, despite knowing they won’t be successful in the way we view success today. At best they will survive and perhaps have a few moments of happiness. While the older generation of characters have survived the Depression the younger generation have to pick up the pieces of their lives and somehow become the Boomers we know they will be remembered as. Quick Lamb and Rose Pickles eventually bring the families together by marrying and having a child but it takes a long while for these two to overcome the challenges of their own lives and the legacy of suffering their parents pass onto them.
Beyond the characters, the titular house conveys a deeper meaning that is mirrored in a smaller sense by the characters. The house is a metaphor for Australia. Burdened with the ghosts of Indigenous girls of the stolen generation, the house is in pain and takes the full duration of the novel to overcome this pain in parallel to those living inside it. In this way the house presents the reader with a challenge to not ignore the past but to actively work to repair past harms. As Winton was writing well before Keating’s Redfern Address, Rudd’s Sorry speech or any of the other hallmarks of the Reconciliation movement it is significant that his message is that recovering from suffering is best done by coming together as one family.
I would love to say students in the last two years have relished all 424 pages of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet but I think they have merely survived it. If you, like them, find it a bit of a struggle I would strongly recommend the Showcase miniseries adaptation which is actually an adaptation of the stage play based on the novel. There are significant changes to the later part of the text where a lot of content is trimmed out but the humour comes through very nicely and is well balanced with great performances by Stephen Curry as Sam Pickles and Geoff Morrell as Lester Lamb.
Cloudstreet is the sort of novel you read and then ten years later re-read and, I imagine, understand all the more for the lessons learnt and experience gained while it has been gathering a thin film of dust on the shelf. Best to get your first read-through in now I reckon, and if you read it a while ago jump back on the horse and give it another look.