Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Two Families in Western Australia

by Tim Winton

"Summer came whirling out of the night and stuck fast.  One morning late in November everybody got up at Cloudstreet and saw the white heat washing in through the windows.  The wild oats and buffalo grass were brown and crisp.  The sky was the colour of kerosene.  The air was thin and volatile.  Smoke rolled along the tracks as men began the burn off on the embankment.  Birds cut singing down to a few necessary phrases, and beneath them in the streets, the tar began to bubble." (p 125)

This amazing novel chronicles the lives of two working class Australian families who come to live together at One Cloud Street, in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, over a period of twenty years, from the nineteen forties to the sixties. Cloudstreet is above all an exploration and celebration of life and what it means, albeit from a very particular point of view. Every character undergoes a personal journey, some longer, harder and more greatly resisted than others, though a feature of all the characters' journeys is the realization of the importance of family and belonging within it. Within this exploration is a demonstration of the nature of the relationship between family and identity, in which an individual's role within their family is considered to be of paramount importance.

Within each of the two families the character of their members blend to provide a sort of family character. Early in the story the Pickles family moves to Cloud Street. As Rose Pickles walks through the dusty empty house she thinks:
"Cloud Street had a good sound to it. Well, depending on how you looked at it. And right now she preferred to think of the big win and not the losses she knew would probably come." (p 38)
As they settle into the large house at Cloud Street the differences between the families become apparent with one demonstrating a sort of free spirit (Rose's father likes to gamble) while the other is much more disciplined through hard work and saving. The Lambs find meaning in industry and in God’s grace; the Pickles, in luck. Each family seeks spiritual guidance in its own way while trying to forget the personal disaster that, in a way, began their journey.

The novel reflects a sense of nostalgia for a time with a greater sense of family and home. For some, like myself, the nostalgia bridged the gap between the strangeness of Western Australia and my own not dissimilar family background growing up in the fifties and sixties in a small Midwestern town. Some of the characters try to break free from the routine of this life. One of these, Rose Pickles,  was willing to break free from the expectations of her family. She was a likable character from her introduction in the story, in part because she was a reader.  But I knew she was my kind of person when she fell in love with one of my favorite novels:
"Rose Pickles read Jane Eyre and decided never to give it back to the public library.  She 
scraped and rubbed to remove all signs of ownership from it, but each morning she woke to see the stamp still bright on the endpapers: CITY OF PERTH.  In the end she cut it out, but it always grew back in her mind's eye.  She took it back and her old man paid the fine.  They cancelled her membership." (p 127)
Her family could not afford many books, not even great novels like Jane Eyre.  Rose, however, is a young woman who shares many character traits with Jane;  although stealing books is not one of them.  Later in the story Rose begins dating a journalist who quotes D. H. Lawrence.  However, he is a little too racy for her.  Another character who leaves the family and returns, Quick Lamb, recognizes his place is with the family while still striving for a better life.

I think the title of the novel, Cloudstreet, is a signal of what the story attempts to convey. Think of a cloud as a symbol of an ideal, something to strive toward, and you have an idea of how the lives of the members of the two families who settle at One Cloud Street come together and grow, both individually and as families. Cloudstreet also signals the importance of place which forms a foundation for the lives of these two families. The result is an impressive saga of mid-twentieth century life in Western Australia.

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Brian Joseph said...

The particular nature of the nostalgia that you allude to in this book sounds appealing to me too.

I love it when a book references other literature. Particularly when the referenced book is a favorite.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. The life of the two families and the nostalgia that covers the story with gossamer is evidence of a great writer. The references to literature were also a plus.