Saturday, April 02, 2011

the last book I read

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton.

Strewth, what a a bunch of larrikins and galahs.

Here's the Pickles family, in dire financial straits after patriarch Sam carelessly gets all the fingers on one hand mashed off in some machinery on a fishing boat and then pisses away most of the rest of their money with some ill-advised "investments" on the horses. Luckily the landlord of the pub in Geraldton Sam and wife Dolly have been looking after conveniently dies and leaves them a big ramshackle house in suburban Perth, to which the whole family relocates.

Here's the Lamb family, Lester and Oriel and their kids, relocating to Perth after their son Fish nearly drowns in a fishing accident and survives only at the cost of fairly severe mental retardation. Arriving in town with nowhere to stay they discover that there are rooms available in a big suburban house on Cloud Street.

So that's the set-up out of the way and the Pickles and Lambs safely installed; all this preamble happens during the Second World War, and the remainder of the book tracks the course of the respective families' combined adventures over the following 20-odd years. The Lambs open a general store at the front of their half of the house and start to make a comfortable living, Sam continues to enjoy mixed fortunes down at the track and on the card table (on one occasion having to be bailed out by Lester Lamb after a beating from some creditors), Dolly hits the bottle in a big way and Oriel Lamb moves out to a tent in the back garden for ill-defined reasons.

Meanwhile the kids grow up and have their own adventures. Mainly the book focuses on Rose Pickles and Quick Lamb - Rose gets a job in the telephone exchange of a Perth department store, has a brief but doomed affair with journalist Toby Raven and battles with occasional eating disorders; Quick leaves home, spends some time living rough in the bush and hunting kangaroos, has a brief but doomed affair with ranch-owner's daughter Lucy Wentworth, and eventually returns to Cloudstreet. There are other kids in both families but they feature less prominently, with the exception of Fish Lamb who is a constant presence despite not really doing much beyond hanging round the house, talking to the Lambs' pet pig out in the back yard and going on occasional fishing trips with Quick.

Eventually Quick and Rose decide that they are in love, and promptly get married. Quick joins the police force, just in time to get involved in the hunt for the "Nedlands Monster" (aka real-life serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke). Quick and Rose have a baby, and eventually we end up with all the members of both families gathering for a celebratory picnic down by the river; hold up, you think: this is where we came in in that little prologue. You also think: aha, now I see what all those occasional little ghostly magical interludes were about - the whole story is told as a flashback through the mind of Fish Lamb as he plunges off a jetty and drowns, finally allowing himself to be claimed by the water that took part of him when he was a child.

Cloudstreet won the Miles Franklin Award for Australian fiction in 1992 - Winton has won this award four times, for Shallows in 1984 and Dirt Music in 2002 (both of which I have read) and Breath in 2009 (which I haven't) - overall my list for this one goes 1984, 1989, 1992, 1999, 2002. You get the impression Winton set out with the intention of writing a deliberately big, sprawling, sentimental family saga complete with much roistering and raging and rollicking, not to mention rucking and rogering, and that's what he's done. It's very entertaining, but to my mind other Wintons like The Riders and Dirt Music are subtler and more satisfying, as well as featuring more likeable characters, pretty much the entire cast of Cloudstreet being entertainingly useless to a greater or lesser degree.