Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
Picador: paperback published 1991: 431 pages
Cloudstreet – a broken-down house of former glories on the wrong side of the tracks, a place teeming with memories of its own, a place of shudders and shadows and spirits.
From separate catastrophes, two families flee to the city and find themselves sharing this great sighing structure and beginning their lives again from scratch. Together they roister and rankle in a house that begins as a roof over their heads and becomes a home for their hearts.
In this fresh, funny novel, full of wonder and dreams, Tim Winton weaves the threads of lifetimes, of twenty years of shouting and fighting, laughing and grafting, into a story about acceptance and belonging.
Well, it wasn’t quite what I expected.
I expected a story of a couple of families slung together with a bit of humour and drama for flavour, and in many respects, that’s what I got. But there were other currents running through it – there were touches of the supernatural (haunting and carefully done), thriller, romance, the question of faith and the question of redemption. From Sam Pickles’ “shifty shadow” to Oriel living in a tent in the back garden and pretending not to pray, this is a story of depth and complexity.
I was honestly surprised – the bit of the TV show I saw, and the brief blurb on the back of the book, didn’t prepare me for this sweeping, clever, lyrical book.
There are bits to get used to – the lack of speech marks, and the slang take some understanding, but before long you’re swept away by the story so much you barely notice that you’re reading.
Before you get overexcited, I have to give Winton a bit of a slap for the first couple of chapters – they do not live up to the book. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that they’re setting you up for the better bits, I’d say skip them all together. It’s not until the families arrive at Cloudstreet (so truncated because of the slang term for the shop the Lamb’s set up) that things really get going.
Quick is the hero of the hour; he might not seem it to begin with, but watch him. You’ll get distracted by Fish, and that’s all well and good, and ponder over the talking pig and Sam Pickles and his tingling hand, but it’s Quick you need to pay attention to. He’ll surprise you. He’s my absolute favourite character (though I have a soft spot for some of the others and a grand dislike of yet more).
Winton doesn’t shy from the darker side of life either. It doesn’t always turn out so well for our Pickles and Lambs. In fact, it more often doesn’t than it does, and Winton handles those situations with skill and sensitivity. Even the supernatural elements – or unnatural elements, to be more accurate – are done with dexterity. Y0u never once question it, it never feels forced or out of context.
This is a book to keep on the shelf and dip in to again and again. Admittedly, the writing is not remarkable – some of it appears sloppy, and other bits excess to the story – but the tale itself is captivating.
Next book: The last of the three I asked for everyone’s opinions on – Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. I’m really looking forward to this after seeing it shortlisted for the Man Booker.