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Cloudstreet : A Novel

Cloudstreet - Tim Winton Readers’ Advisory informationSubject headings: Australian historical fiction (1940’s-1960’s)Appeal factors: Slice-of-life chronicles of two working class families in Perth.Pacing: Medium to FastCool/funny bird characters: 1Storyline: Two families sharing a duplex home raise their families and deal with their fair share of tragedies over the course of almost thirty years.Frame: Drama, interspersed with comedy and occasionally related to historical events Characterization: Personable, engaging.Fair Warning: I don’t like clicking the “spoiler box”, but this is a fairly spoilerific review.Cloudstreet follows the lives of two families - the Lambs and the Pickles sharing a duplex home on the titular street in Perth, from 1944 to 1969. Overall, the novel is like an Australian version of The Waltons, but with more fighting and alcoholism. Karen’s Readers’ Advisory recommended it as something that would give one a sense of every day life in Australia. On that count, I would say it was a qualified success; I can believe it accurately reflects what everyday life was like for some people in Perth during the times it describes. My real enjoyment of the book lies in the multidimensional characters author Tim Winton creates, and there I would say Cloudstreet is really wonderful. My favorite character is the easygoing, fun-loving patriarch Sam Pickles. On one hand, he spends altogether too much money at the horse races, and even his young children regard him as too immature to be raising a family, but he isn’t a fool; more like an occasionally sad clown. Between his own gambling addiction, his difficult marriage to alcoholic and self-destructive Dolly, his wayward son‘s death, and the industrial accident which took four of his fingers and put him out of a job, Sam has a lot to cope with. By the end of the book, it’s apparent that his laid-back attitude is the only thing that’s got him through tough times. He's like a green sapling that bends with the wind, while all the stronger, more brittle trees around him are snapping and blowing over. One other great thing about Sam: he’s got a cool cockatoo who functions as comic relief, when things get too depressing. Kudos to author Tim Winton for featuring such a likable bird in this novel! Daughter Rose Pickle is not so happy-go-lucky. As her mother drinks herself into oblivion, the job of raising the twins falls to Rose. In some ways, it builds her self-reliance; she really is a remarkably strong girl, but it also makes her bitter, and literally eats away at her, insofar as it might be responsible for her anorexia. The dynamic between Rose and Dolly is one of the darkest things about Cloudstreet. If it isn’t hate between them, it’s close enough. Even when they eventually come to an uneasy understanding (based on an unusual revelation about Dolly), the damage is too great to support trust or affection. This is definitely not a wholesome family drama like Little House on the Prairie. While the Pickles struggle with substance abuse and dysfunction, they are renting out the other half of their house to the much more sympathetic Lamb family, who have recently moved to Perth from rural outlands, where their bright and gregarious son “Fish” (they all have distracting nicknames like that) recently suffered debilitating brain damage after a near-drowning, when he got tangled in a net trawling for crabs. Matriarch Oriel had been a devout evangelist, until the incident shook her loose from organized religion. She’s tough as nails, and treats the reader to some fascinating flashbacks of a true frontier upbringing. Australia in the 1910’s was an untamed continent at the terminus of the sprawling British Empire; it really was like the “ends of the Earth”. Husband Lester is somewhat less severe, and acts as a moderating force over both families. He is responsible enough to run their little family business- a fruit and vegetable store- but not upright or shrewd enough to avoid Sam Pickle occasionally helping him lose his earnings at the racetrack. The Lamb kids are troublesome in their own way, and there’s a lot of chaos, but their drama isn’t quite so heavy as the Pickles’. Well, that’s just my impression. In the end, both families have their share of good times (Lester’s popular vaudeville act, Sam’s big win at the racetrack, collective hallucinations of the pig talking), bad times (Fish’s brain damage, Dolly’s infidelity) and hard times (Ted getting a neighborhood girl pregnant, the kids’ classmate’s tragic death). For American readers, I think this is a view of Australia that we don’t see often. Most of the popular media images of Australia focus on wild adventures in the Outback. Reading about two inner city working-class families struggling with unglamorous problems sounds a lot more authentic than all that Crocodile Dundee shit. One of the wonderful things about Cloudstreet is that the rough-edged subject matter isn’t delivered in rough-edged prose. In parts, it’s almost poetic, which is maybe not quite a juxtaposition, but it is unexpected, and gives the whole book a sort of quiet dignity I don’t think it would otherwise have. Check out this passage, where Quick Lamb finally meets his uncle for the first time, after a lifetime of hearing his mother’s adoring stories about him:The Depression had made him hard; war had beaten him flat and work had scoured all the fun from him. He was hard beyond belief, beyond admiration. On a Sunday night Quick saw him apply a blowtorch to the belly of a fallen cow before going back inside to pedal the old pianola for May. The land has done this to them, Quick thought; this could have been us.There’s something very beautiful about that. The book has a lot of little passages like that. It’s understated but intense.