Richard accused me the other day of being a little hard to pin down sometimes, regarding my straight-up opinion of a book. Did I like it? Did I not? Ah well. Such is the danger of the anti-review form practiced here at Evening All Afternoon. And sad to say, I'm afraid my thoughts on Tim Winton's Cloudstreet will not exactly help my reputation in this regard. There are so many things to love in this grittily atmospheric family saga of working-class life in Western Australia: gorgeous, chewy prose and rich dialogue; compelling characters (both male and female) that made me cringe more than they made me hope, but still made me hope enough to keep me reading; a refreshingly honest depiction of sex and its role in human relationships; and intriguing questions about the relationship between luck, religion, and chance. It also featured a few elements that took my opinion down a few pegs, including a distracting magical-realist streak that felt tacked on as a concession to the literary fads of the early 1990s.

Cloudstreet is the story of two working-class families in and around Perth, Western Australia, in the period from late World War II to the early 1960s. The Pickles clan, headed by the infuriating yet charismatic gambling addict Sam and the alcoholic sex kitten Dolly, also includes their daughter Rose and her two brothers. The once God-fearing Lamb family (hard-nosed Oriel, good-natured Lester and their seven kids) lose their religious faith after a calamity befalls their favorite son Fish: caught in a fishing net, he is dragged under the water and nearly drowned, to be brain-damaged upon resuscitation. Events bring the two families together into a single, ramshackle house on Cloud Street, where the Pickles cuss and brawl, the Lambs open a shop and supply fruit and veg to the neighborhood, and the two clans weather twenty years, mostly apart (despite their proximity) but occasionally together. Between the Lambs and the Pickleses, the reader is torn between a faith in God that has been lost but is still mourned; a faith in Lady Luck that is never abandoned despite ample reason; and a question in the minds of many characters about whether blind chance rules their lives. Meanwhile the house, a character in its own right, is vaguely sinister (in fact haunted) for most of the time they're living in it, yet it somehow manages to become "home."

I think the thing that succeeds in keeping Cloudstreet so grounded, despite the incidentally haunted house and other supernatural elements (on which more later), is the visceral quality of Winton's prose, which is flexible and earthy and which I unreservedly loved. I've been sitting here flipping through my copy, and there are so many beautiful passages that it's difficult to choose what to share with you. Sometimes it's rich and literary, with a great ear for rhythm:

Down at Crawley there were lights out on the river and through the boozing parties of prawners with their whingeing kids and boiling drums of water to where the grass ended and the peppermints gripped the bank above the sand and the thick stewy smell of the river was strong and plain in his face.

Other times, as in this fantastic chapter of dialogue, Winton gives us the verbal play of his characters (an adult Rose is working on a telephone exchange and gossiping with her coworkers in between answering calls):

Shove the jacks into the jills, says Alma at the switch. Rose blushes and laughs.
Good morning, Bairds, can I help you?
Bairds, good morning, sir, can I help you?
Can I help you?
Hello? Hello?
One moment.
I'm sorry, this is Bairds. Oh, you want beds!
Putting you through
Jack into Jill! yells Darleen, and they all crack up.
Gawd, love, why don't you feed yerself Good morning, Bairds.
Merle's in love with a dwarf Bairds, good morning.
Good morning. Bairds yer a liar, she's lyin.
Putting you through he's shorter than Mum's pastry!
Short ones've got fat thingies Good morning, Bairds.
Well she's hardly the eye of the needle One moment madam.
Youse sheilas are gettin fouler every year Can you hold?
He's never asked me, thank you, sir.
Disgustin Bairds.
Exhausted from not laughing, Rose ploughs through every day with a crazy happiness. She takes home pay and the pavement smell of the city. She puts on a bit of flesh. She eats. The world looks different.

A few Aussie reviewers have said that the working-class slang spoken by Winton's characters sounds very dated to them; I'm not sure if they mean realistically dated (this is mid-century, after all), or unconvincingly stereotypical. I can say that his tone manages to feel both consistent and versatile to me, which is an achievement. The language in the chapter above reminds me of Scorcese's working-class Italian-American characters in films like Raging Bull: "Youse sheilas are gettin fouler every year" cued up Vikki LaMotta in my head, declaring "I'm tired of havin' to turn around and havin' both of yuz up my ass all the time." True, I've never known anyone who actually talks like this, and I can't vouch that anyone ever has, but it feels consistent and believable—even roughly beautiful—within the work.

Some of my favorite moments were the believably unpredictable times when one family or the other shares a moment of hilarity, evoked by Winton with a loving authenticity. In this scene, for example, Oriel Lamb crushes her young son by whisking his birthday cake out from under his nose and selling it to a stranger.

          Birthday, Quick, said Fish.
          Yeah, said Quick.
          Suddenly, they all laughed—even Quick. It started as a titter, and went quickly to a giggle, then a wheeze, and then screaming and shrieking till they were daft with it, and when Oriel came back in they were pandemonious, gone for all money. But they paused like good soldiers when she solemnly raised her hand. She fished in her apron and pulled out a florin. Happy birthday, son.
          You want change from this? said Quick.
          That set them off again and there was no stopping them.

I love the way Quick goes from devastated to hilarious in a single moment here; it feels so true to those unexpected emotional switches that sometimes surprise a person. There are other scenes where everything should be fine with a character, and yet he is unaccountably plagued by melancholy; these moments are the counterpoint, when extreme disappointment suddenly flips over into uproarious laughter. Both scenarios ring emotionally true.

Nor is this scene an isolated incident. The characters in Cloudstreet are all so believable and flawed, and Winton portrays the strain in their relationships so well. I found the tension around Sam and Dolly's relationship especially heart-wrenching, gradually see-sawing as it does between his tendency to gamble away all their money and her efforts to drink herself to death—Winton's storytelling is never as melodramatic as that makes it sound, but he definitely does know how to build up some uncomfortable pressure. Cloudstreet sometimes struck me as a Western Australian version of Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina, minus that novel's central theme of childhood sexual abuse. They share excellently gritty atmosphere and characterization: the tough-as-nails women, old before their time, the charismatic but irresponsible fathers and the daughters who are torn between loving and resenting them, the constant existence on the margins, always just getting by. I thought Winton did a great job making the physical and emotional reality of that world real to the reader.

The number one thing keeping Cloudstreet off my Favorite Novels list, however, are certain magical-realist tendencies, which I found more distracting than effective. I don't dislike magical realism uniformly: I love much of Salman Rushdie's work, and Winton's countryman Peter Carey uses the technique well in Illywhacker, his paean to compulsive lying and its role in Australian history. And I'm not sure if my reaction to Winton's magical realist touches were down to my mood—after so much experimental lit in January and February, I'm in the mood for a few straight realist narratives—but whatever the case, I felt like most of them detracted from the rest of the novel's charms. The Lambs, for example, own a pig speaks in a language that may be tongues. At first I thought this was psychological: Fish is the first person who hears the pig speak, and his mind works differently than others'. But then Lester hears the pig talk as well. And I felt that the level of suspension of disbelief necessary to accept a talking pig detracted from my enjoyment of the tangible reality and groundedness of the rest of Winton's world.

Similar incidents occur often enough that this issue was a thorn in my side throughout the reading. Winton's style just doesn't mesh with the book's more outlandish events, and they distract from his strengths without adding much substance. Sometimes, like in the scene where hundreds of fish throw themselves into Quick Lamb's boat, I felt the magic played with the issues of faith and religion/luck/chance central to the novel, so I tried to overlook it. But at other times I felt Winton could have explored his themes more effectively in other ways. I imagine, though, that for some people this aspect of the novel will be a plus rather than a minus; if you love magical realism for its own sake, I'd say this is definitely a book you should check out. Personally, I heartily enjoyed the more realist sections of the book, and am interested to explore Winton's other work.


  • Oh Emily thank you SO MUCH for your review of this book.

    It's a fav of mine. I've read it a few times and seen the play. From here in Perth I've always been curious to know how such West Aussie slang would read from afar, and it's great to hear that it crosses borders easily. One of my favourite examples, early in the book, of Winton's ability to coin a feeling in a word is when Sam '...felt like getting sickdrunk and dancing all night.' Sickdrunk. Love it.

    With your review you've helped me understand my own ambivalence to the magical realism. A while ago discussing Cloudstreet in book club, when talk turned to the magical realism the room fell fairly quiet and any discussion can be best summed up (in Winton-style) with the word 'dunno'. Don't know why it's there, don't know what it adds, don't know how to interpret. I've always been keen to hear if others could give a better reflection on this aspect of Cloudstreet. Your take on it somewhat validates my thoughts that it's an odd fit in the book.

    Anyway, I envy you to have so much Tim Winton reading ahead. I've not read them all, but a fair whack, and some of them make me still with appreciation.

    Oh, and one more thing.... his minimalist punctuation? It threw me on first reading back in the 90s, now I'm used to it. Any comment?

  • The excerpts you give perfectly illustrate your characterization of his prose as visceral and earthy. The language sounds wonderful but I agree that I would have been disconcerted, at the least, at the magical aspects. I think minimalist punctuation sometimes reflects aspirations to Be Like James Joyce.

  • I like magical realism but there has to be a point to it. If there is not point then it doesn't work for me. I wonder why Winton added those elements and what he thought he acheived by it? Don't you wish at times like that you could pick up the phone and say, "Dude, what were you thinking?" I have to ask, with characters surnamed "Pickle" were there any pickle jokes? Like, any of them first named Dill? But I suppose that one would be to obvious :)

  • I'm going to avoid engaging you on the magical realism angle here since I'm afraid it may turn into an anti-MR rant, Emily, but I suspect I would have had a similar reaction to you re: the realist/magical realist mix. Why ruin a good time like that? Still hoping to get to Illywhacker sometime later this year, but I hope your Oz fest continues because I'm much more familiar with Australian rock & roll/film than literature sadly enough. P.S. "Sheila" is one of my very favorite slang terms of all time! What a nice surprise to encounter it in a post that also mentions Raging Bull. :D

  • Excellent review! I've been eager to see what the 'grounded' piece of Australian fiction that you were reading was. This sounds totally fascinating - love those excerpts and the minimal use of punctuation. Shame about the odd addition of "MR", but I'm definitely adding this author and book to my TBR list!

  • When I read this book, I had mixed feelings also.

    I need to reread it to "get" it better.

    I liked the writing and learning about the families.

    It just takes awhile to get used to the style of writing.

  • I'm a little confused about the tone of this book. Your initial description made it sound like a gritty realist novel about working-class life, but then it has a haunted house and magical realism? In Australia? How does this all fit together? Sounds like kind of a hodge-podge.

  • I cannot imagine Tim Winton and magical realism coming together in a book! But I loved Dirt Music--highly recommend it for all the reasons you liked this book. I also enjoyed his collection The Turning. So happy to be able to mark a book OFF my list!

  • Margaret: I'm so glad you stopped by! You are just who I wanted to talk to about this book. So, I assume the slang strikes you, as a Perth-dweller, as believable as well? Does it evoke the era for you, or do you find that there are still people who talk this way? That was one of the primary things I wondered as I read the book.

    Winton's writing at the level of the word & phrase is amazing; your sickdrunk example is a great one. I loved the "shifty shadow of God" as well. I'm psyched that his other novels are not as heavy on the magical realism—of the ones you've read, what would be your next recommendation?

    Re: the punctuation, it didn't particularly strike me either way. He basically just leaves off quotation marks, which frankly I'm all for—looks less cluttered, and is hardly ever more difficult to understand in my opinion. If I wrote dialogue, I would write it without quotation marks, too. :-)

  • Jill: Well, the punctuation as a whole is relatively normal; certainly no Molly Bloom, as there are plenty of full stops, etc. The magical realism is definitely an odd match, but the prose is fantastic. :-)

    Stefanie: My feelings exactly; there must be a point to magical realism if I'm to accept it. That's why I felt it worked in Illywhacker, because the whole book's ABOUT lying and tall tales, so it fit in thematically. This one, not so much. Re: pickle jokes, I didn't notice any, although there is a scene where a Pickles character assures a Lamb character that neither of them will ever get a job on the wireless. :-)

  • Richard: I wondered about your opinion on MR, since you read so much Latin American lit yet seem to gravitate away from the Márquez set. Hopefully the magical parts of Illywhacker won't ruin it for you! I thought they worked because the main character brags about being a liar, so as his stories get wilder & wilder the reader kind of understands that he's telling tall tales. But I'll be curious about your opinion if/when you get around to it.

    Sarah: Awesome, glad it appeals to you! I will definitely be reading more Winton, especially since evidence seems to point to less MR in his other books. :-)

  • Isabel: I think I'll be moving on to different Winton rather than re-reading this one, but I'm definitely glad I read it, despite my magical-realist frustrations. I totally agree that the family dynamics were a high point. :-)

    EL Fay: Well, yes, that was basically my complaint - the magical realist stuff seems weirdly and ineffectively tacked on to an otherwise brilliant gritty realist novel. Did make for a confusing tone, although the realist stuff remained prominent enough that I did enjoy it overall.

  • Cynthia: Oh, I'm so relieved to hear from you and a few others that the magical realism element is not characteristic of Winton in general! I was really hoping that was the case, because aside from that he's definitely someone whose work I want to follow. Will check out Dirt Music, for sure!

  • Emily, yes the slang was completely believable and captured both a place and a time. As an oral history interviewer I've interviewed the odd old West Australian who spoke in that vein, but I think it mostly existed earlier last century and globalism and general snazzing up of the urban population have flattened the slang somewhat. Having said that, I happened to read a Dictionary of Australian Slang at a friend's house the other night when I was babysitting, and blow-me-down if I didn't recognise most terms, and laugh my head off at them to boot. Nothing like your own country's slang to make you feel totally at home. It's the epitome of the 'in joke'. But I also wonder if I'm too close to the language to really know if it still exists as Winton writes it? He certainly has an ear for it, perhaps he'd say it's alive and well? I guess you'll just have to visit Australia again, have a listen and let me know :)

    As for Winton recommendations, I must admit he could write phone book entries and I'd find them poetic. Among his earlier works are teenage coming of age stories, such as Lochie Leonard - Human Torpedo, that give an insight into his sympathies for kids growing up in rural Australia. Then there's more recent adult fiction The Turning, which gives an insight into his sympathies for adults living in rural Australia. Either way, I hope you enjoy more Winton.

    Now - what's next? :)

  • Great comments!!
    Does anybody know the significance of Beryll Lee? And why does Fish glow?


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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography