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OK, so I have a confession to make. I have never before read, Australian writer Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, nor have I watched the miniseries.
This confession is more criminal if you were to know that I spent five years in the West Australian education system, and then a further three in tertiary education studying English Literature.
It’s not that I hadn’t heard of Cloudstreet, a novel centered in historical Fremantle, WA. It’s just that having spent the last eight years hearing others complain about being forced to read the novel, I did the unthinkable and let their opinion colour my own.
I am now proud to state that I can tick Cloudstreet off my list. That’s not to say that I enjoyed it.
Cloudstreet centers on two working-class families; the typical ‘larrikin’ (and debatably, bludger) Pickles and the God-fearing Lambs. Both of these families were living a life of relative contentment in two separate WA country towns.
Then tragedy strikes (or as Sam Pickles notes, ‘the Shifty Shadow’ strikes). By happen-stance the Pickles family tragedy lands them with a dilapidated mansion at number one Cloudstreet in Fremantle.
Facing certain poverty, due to an unfortunate love of drinking and gambling between the two parents, the Pickles take on renters; the Lambs, who have also moved to Perth to escape their own misfortunes.
Cloudstreet traces the experiences, failings and idiosyncrasies of each of the family members over the following decades, from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, and revels in offbeat humour and gritty reality in the face of hardships.
There is no way that anyone could legitimately claim that this isn’t a book that deserves to have the title of an ‘Australian Classic’. Awarded the Miles Franklin award in 1992 and part of the WA educational curriculum for a number of decades, this is surely a book that needs to be read at least once. But does that make it an enjoyable read as well as an academic one?
The best way that I could describe Winton’s writing is that it’s almost poetic. It has a rhythm and tempo, but its meanings are tenuous at best.
Trying to decipher all the subtext made me feel a bit like Fish Pickles, slowly drowning and struggling against the tide, only having my head bob up at the last minute. Unlike Fish though, I had no desire to run back into the water once I’d finished.
Yes, there are some fantastic passages in the novel, but it’s all very cerebral with no real enjoyment to it. You feel like your reading because you should, not because you want to.
I found most of the characters off-putting and unlikable, not humorous or true ‘underdogs’; some scenes were unnecessarily vulgar and confronting. What I will say is that Winton certainly has a way with words, and the descriptions of 1940s & 50’s Perth is worth the read.
I could see the overhanging Jacaranda trees, feel the corrugated iron veranda rails under my hands and sense that unique feeling of Australian summers in the city. Winton invokes Perth’s old beauty; that sweet little country town in the middle of nowhere before it started to get too big for its breeches.
Plus, as citizens of Perth would probably understand better than most, it’s a secret thrill to see names and places that you live near, printed in a book whose words have spread thousands of miles across the world.
But don’t let my opinion sway you, as I let others sway mine. The next time you’re at the library, have a search for this book and make up your own mind.