Meet the central character in this book—the old house at 1, Cloud Street, in Perth. The house is almost alive: “a big, sad, two-storey affair in a garden full of fruit trees” with “iron lace in front and a bullnosed veranda. Some floors sloped and others were lumpy and singsong as you walked on them.” It can accommodate 20 people (but has only one bathroom).
1, Cloud Street, was left to the Pickles, Sam and Dolly and their children Rose, Ted and Chub, by Dolly’s brother. But the Pickles need an income so the Lambs—Lester and Oriel and their children, Fish, Quick, Elaine, Lon, Hat and Red—move in, renting half of Cloudstreet. “It’s gunna sound like a counter lunch—Lamb and Pickles, ”says Sam.
The book begins with disaster (what Sam calls “the shifty shadow”) striking both families. Sam loses four fingers on his right hand in a fishing accident. The Lambs are picnicking by the river, when the irrepressible Fish jumps in and almost drowns. He is never the same again, growing into a man-boy.
The two couples are very different. Sam and Dolly don’t do much about the bad luck that dogs them—neither of them is good with money, which doesn’t help. Sam is a compulsive gambler, spending his weekends at the race track, and Dolly is an alcoholic. It’s ironic that Sam finally gets a job at the mint.
The Lambs, on the other hand, see bad luck as something that can be beaten with hard work. They’ve barely moved in when Oriel sets up a grocery story on the ground floor of their half of the house. She is a force of nature, and the grocery store thrives, seeing off any competitors that dare to set up near her.
And the river runs through the story. Many life-changing moments, happy and sad—like Fish’s near drowning—happen on the river. But, for me, the river is in the fabric of the book. It is in Tim Winton’s writing, which echoes it: exuberant and unstoppable at times, and slow and gentle at others. The book hums with life, as the characters grow up, grow old, fight, leave, return and finally come to a sort of reconciliation.
Winton draws characters you care about, although with 13 of them, some are bound to be relegated to the sidelines. But Fish, Rose and Quick and their parents are vivid—I almost felt I knew them. Winton also throws in a touch of the otherworldly, which add to the rich tapestry he weaves—a mysterious and silent aborigine man appears at key moments; Fish has long conversations with the pig in the yard; a strange old woman is sometimes seen in the house; and no one can explain why one of the rooms smells of rotting meat. The house has its secrets and its ghosts.
Cloudstreet is about very different people learning to live together (and not always succeeding). Some of it is based on people from Winton’s family: his grand-uncle had a butchered hand, his grandmother lived in a tent in the yard (like Oriel), and there really was “a racehorse with a brief tenure in smallgoods haulage” (one of Sam’s crazy schemes). Winton wrote the book to keep alive the memory of a certain place and time, especially in today’s rapidly changing world. And he has succeeded. 1 Cloudstreet and its residents will live on. This is not the usual family saga: it is an unusual book, both in the way it’s written and the story itself. I loved it.