On Our Bookshelves – Cloudstreet
AUTHOR: Tim Winton
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1991
I’ve been on a bit of a binge of Australian fiction recently (which, as I’ve recently visited Australia and was given some novels while I was there, makes good sense). The Women in Black is light as soufflé, a short and sweet little story, and it’s great fun. Cloudstreet is another thing altogether.
This one’s an epic. A big novel. Big in ambition, big in time frame (covering twenty years in the lives of two poor families sharing a ramshackle house), and extremely big-hearted. It’s full of everything imaginable: private tragedies, death, disability, miscarriage, warmth and humor, alcoholism, anorexia, love (requited and unrequited), loyalty, fatalism, infidelity, promiscuity, accidents, poverty, miracles, dogged endurance, struggles with class, struggles with faith, and incandescent moments of rare beauty…glimpses of grace in a sinful, tarnished world.
It reminds me a bit of James Joyce, and a bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but it’s an Australian book, through and through. The writing is simply gorgeous; whether describing a fishing trip, a day’s work at the store, or a conversation over tea, it sings. And the moments of magical realism–Cloudstreet, the house, haunted by its prior residents, a pig that talks, the dreams that come to life at night–fit into the conventional narrative with no explanation required, or even considered.
One of its most moving passages is of two women dancing at the end of a wedding reception:
…and they move out onto the floor in a slow rhythm that sobers the entire place. The short, boxy woman slips around gracefully, holding the old beauty up, and turn by turn something grows.
They look so bloody dignified, says Rose. So proud.
As they wheel by like a miracle, there are spectators weeping.
The whole book is rather like that…the mundane and the transcendent, side by side. My biggest criticism is the recurring (and possibly supernatural, or possibly completely imaginary) mystical Aboriginal character, who seems a bit of a “Noble Savage” and did make me cringe a bit. I wouldn’t want to convict Tim Winton of racist primitivism, though; he’s much more subtle than that, and one of his characters does point out that the man wasn’t eligible to vote in Australian elections.
Winton’s focus here is on the domestic, the day-to-day lives of the working class, but here and there, the bigger world intrudes: the Korean War, slow social change, a serial killer terrorizing Perth.
I tend not to get much sleep on planes, and I haven’t much interest in watching movies on the tiny screen on the back of the seat in front of me. A big, long, dense, heavy, delicious book is just the thing, then, for a long haul flight, and, not being able to get up and walk around, not distracted by e-mails with the phone in airplane mode, it’s a rare treat for me to be able to turn that little reading light on and get absorbed in a story. So, if you’re flying to the other side of the world, you might want to bring this one with you. And if you’re not…you might just want to read it anyway, because, as far as I can tell, it’s a modern classic.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 1/2 Whistles
HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lead-In Baby Kangaroo Composite Image; Courtesy of LifetimeStock / Shutterstock.com
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