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The Cloud Street of life

May 29, 2011

Thousands of people claim Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet as their favourite novel.  It’s certainly one of mine.  But what is so special about this saga of two poor families living mid-20th Century in a rundown house in a parochial Australian town?  The lives involved would probably rate as not worth the bother to most storytellers.  Special?  Winton’s characters live, die, fall in and out of love, get married, have kids, get old.  They have their tragedies and their joys, mostly private ones, like most of us.  But you wouldn’t give any of them a second glance on the daily train commute.  In the course of 20 years, not one of them has a story that would make the front page of the newspaper you’re reading.  Sure, they have their little sensations, but you’d mostly dismiss those as pub talk.  So why?

Tim Winton opens up their lives for us as if that dusty broken old house on Cloud Street is a stuffed-full keepsake chest.

… an enormous, flaking mansion with eyes and ears and a look of godless opulence about it…

… the quiet yard where vegetables teemed in the earth and fruit hung, where a scarfaced pig sang sweetly at the sky…

He treats each member of the Lamb and Pickles clans as a soul who cradles the essence of life itself.  Their every gesture is worthy of reverence simply because they are human beings.

Lester and Oriel Lamb are Godfearing people.  If you didn’t know them you could see it in the way they set up a light in the darkness.  You’ve never seen people relish the lighting of a lamp like this, the way they crouch together and cradle the glass piece in their hands, wide eyes caught in the flare of a match, the gentle murmurs and the pumping, the sighs as the light grows and turns footprints on the river beach into longshadowed moon craters.  Let your light so shine.

Rose sharpened all her pencils and kept her writing desk in good order.  Each drawer was neat as a diagram inside: paper, nibs, clips, crayons, blunt scissors closed like a body in repose.  It was the way she’d have her whole kitchen, if she ever had one to herself: her whole house.

He doesn’t romanticise their lives.  He keeps them complicated, knotty.  He mingles their joy with sadness, refuses them important, let alone happy, endings.  Yet he also treats them with so much compassion that you learn to revere them as he does.  Fish Lamb, Cloudstreet’s central character – the most odd, disabled and beautiful of all Winton’s characters – voices his creator’s and our own feeling about them:  ‘… you can’t help but worry for them, love them, want for them…’

And I’m excited about the mini-series of the novel, screening soon.  The posters give hope of a thoughtful production.  The still photos of plainly dressed characters and simple scenes are carefully designed.  They’re pretty and polished, not flashy and false.  Historical accuracy has not been compromised, but neither has the richness of these fictional lives.  It looks like the producers might share the general respect for this novel.  And many of us agree that it is the great Australian novel.

But still, why so special?  Why so great?

I think it’s because Tim Winton’s vision of life is the one we all want.  We want to see our own lives in the same kindly light, no matter our foibles and our ordinariness.  Look how he paints conversations, as if each word is the perfect and only thing that can be uttered in that moment.  Not a word too many, not one too few:

Dolly rests an elbow on the sill.  The grass is shin high out in their half of the yard.  Bits of busted billycarts and boxes litter the place beneath the sagging clothesline.

I dunno what I’m doin, she says.

Do you ever?

She shrugs.  Spose not.  What about you?

He takes a drag.  I’m a bloke.  I work.  I’m courtin the shifty shadow.  That’s what I’m doin.

This is another life.

It’s the city.  We own a house.  We got tenants.

Do you remember Joel’s beach house?

Sorta question is that?

That was our life.

It’s easy to forget how beautiful Tim Winton’s style is.  So many writers, particularly we Australians who are proud of the guy, model our work on his.  ‘Wintonesque’ is already in the lexicon and will probably make it into The Macquarie Dictionary in time.  We’re used to it is all.

Like all great books, there’s a message in Cloudstreet that readers can take away to enrich their own lives.  It’s that we can have that same vision and it will redeem us.  We don’t have to strive for worldly greatness or stand out from the crowd.  We can be – and no doubt most of us are – no better or worse, no more or less important, than a Sam Pickles or an Oriel Lamb.  All it takes is a little forgiveness, and our lives will be as lovable.

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