“‘God, you sound like a book…What did you ever get out of [books], anyway?’
‘…some idea of how other people lived their lives, Mum. A look at real people.’”
– Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton
These past couple weeks I have been missing Australia like a child misses their foster parents. I lived in Oz for over three years. I moved back to Canada last summer. When I left I was happy to be done with the whole lot. Sure the weather was great and the landscape spectacular, but I had to leave. Australia was my adopted home, but I had been an expat too long. I was getting tired of being “the foreigner”. And, besides, my visa was going to expire, so I had to decide between applying for permanent residency or moving on. I knew it was time for me to go home, be close to family, and remind myself why I love Canada so much.
I have been home seven months now. I have thoroughly enjoyed being back. I attended three weddings (was in the bridal party for two), moved to Montreal for 3 months (where I got a job as a dishwasher in Old Montreal), started up an online radio show with a buddy (you can listen to us here), and am taking an editing course through SFU. Plus, I got to be here, in Vancouver, for the Olympics. All in all my time back has been great.
Then I started reading Cloudstreet. I received it as a Christmas gift last year. I tried reading it once before. I didn’t like the writing style so I put it down. Which is funny, because the previous year I had received Tim Winton’s “The Turning”, a collection of his short stories, and I absolutely loved them. His writing was so vibrant, yet required very little details to create an impression. The first story, ‘Big World’, is one of my favourite short stories. It’s funny, insightful, and bleeds adolescent truth.
This is why my initial distaste for Cloudstreet upset me. I wanted to like it, but, I guess, it wasn’t meant to be, at that time. I brought the book back to Canada with me, and let it sit on my bookshelf for the past six months. Now that I have finished it, I am happy to say that my opinion has changed. I do like it. And, while it doesn’t make my top ten list of favourite novels it is definitely one I will recommend to friends.
Cloudstreet, to me, is a cross between “East of Eden”, by John Steinbeck, and “The Sundowners”, by Jon Cleary. (Interestingly, both novels were published in 1952.) Roughly, the story follows two families, The Pickles and The Lambs, as they cohabitate in the same house, called Cloudstreet. Over the span of decades they fight, laugh, and learn the value of family.
Winton explores many themes throughout the novel, like the battle between luck and God’s plan, the changing role and identity of men in post-war Australia, the need for independence and family, and how we remember our childhood and the past.
Given the size of the families, and the intermingling, Winton had a large cast to balance. He could have easily been bogged down by featuring every character’s story arch; luckily he doesn’t. He follows a few characters more closely than others and uses them to illustrate everyone’s experiences.
I loved the book for it’s descriptive style. One of Winton’s strength’s is his word choice. He does not waste words on a page. Every line, sentence and word has a weight and provides balance. Remove one and the feeling is gone. I would reread whole sentences and remove adjectives to see how vital they were for that sentence. Just as a quick example, here is a passage from one of the more traumatic scenes in the novel. A child is hit by a train:
“…the engine smacks him with the sound of a watermelon falling of the back of a truck, and he’s gone. Everything is screaming. The train punishes itself to a halt.”
Now, take out, and change, the words: “smack”, “watermelon”, and “punishes itself”. Change them to, say, “the engine hits him with the sound of a doll falling of the back of a truck, and he’s gone. Everything is screaming. The train comes to a halt.”
Without the original words the passage has lost all of its power and resonance. “Smack” has the double effect of giving the impression of sound and the act of being hit. “Watermelon” adds weight and texture. And “punishes itself” humanizes the train – it adds another character to the scene, allowing the reader to relate to the events.
Not to hyperbolize, or overplay the affects the book had on me, but I loved it. My father once told me “ a great book will affect you in ways you don’t expect. When the character(s) is having a good day, it makes you have a good day too. But if he is having a bad day, then, somehow, that makes you have a bad day.” And that’s exactly what Cloudstreet did. It was so easy to connect with these characters. They seemed so human, real, and, at times, lovable, I wished I could be there with them in the kitchen and “give the knife a spin”.
Cloudstreet has made me want to go back to Australia. Maybe not to live, but at least visit. It has reminded me of all the things I miss there: two-up, meat pies, League’s clubs, the Darby Raj, swimming, Roos, and the orange, hot sunsets over the hills.
The next book: “Three Men in a Boat”, by Jerome K. Jerome