Saturday, August 07, 2010

Reading group: Cloud Street by Tim Winton

As well as failing to keep up with blogging on account of being so involved in my novel, I've also been struggling to do my scheduled reading. When the group met to discuss this book in June I hadn't managed to find time read it - and John, who had already read it, dissuaded me from bothering , as he felt it would put me off my stride: there are enough similarities with the book I'm writing, he felt, to make me feel I ought to change mine (which he didn't think I should). In fact, of course, this made me curious enough to have a sneaky peek, and I immediately felt I would love it. And now I've read it - though it took me ages! - and it's true there are things which chime with my own, but not enough I feel to matter.

Like my WIP, it's a kind of family saga. In this case it's the story of two Australian families, the Pickles and the Lambs, who live one each side of a rambling, ramshackle house in Perth, bought with a win on the horses and inherited by Sam Pickles whose own life is directed and misdirected by a compulsion for gambling and a quasi-religious belief in luck. The Lambs arrive in the wake of a tragedy - one of their sons, the previously bright Fish, has been brain-damaged through near-drowning - and in the half of the house they rent they set up a grocer's shop. For many years relations between the two families are fairly strained, particularly between the two wives, beautiful drunkard Dolly Pickles and plain, hard-working Oriel Lamb with her Protestant ethic, but inevitably the lives of them all become entangled. There's a rich, rumbustious realism to this novel: as one critic has said, it's as vivid and concrete as a soap, and the character depiction is to my mind sublime; yet there are ghosts and hauntings. There's a windowless room with a piano that rings out middle C when no one's in the room, and the shades of the pianist and original owner, a cruel woman who once ran a missionary for black girls in the house, and the sobbing black girl who died there, probably from a beating; there's a singing, talking pig, there's an unearthly aboriginal man who haunts the family, especially Fish's brother Quick, and the whole story is watched from another dimension by Fish after his death, the true drowning he has in the end (and at the beginning of the novel).

As far as I remember everyone present for the discussion liked this book, though none were quite as bowled over as I'd expected them to be after dipping into the beginning. What was clear to me then was the impressive language: the use of a vivid and energetic Australian demotic, and the most striking and apt images: 'diesels throbbing like blood', 'the water was a flat bed of sunlight', 'the sky kiting over', and when I came to read the book, for much of its length I was hooked on this language and the way it successfully combines the earthy, realist elements and the surreal.

However, some people in the group didn't find the mix so seamless: it seemed to be agreed that the aboriginal man, for instance, was 'plonked in', someone suggested as a political sop, and some hadn't found the fact that the story is narrated by an after-life Fish particularly significant or memorable. In fact, there wasn't really much discussion at all: Doug said he also very much admired the language and Clare said that the book was notable for its generosity, the lack of judgement of the characters that you so often find in English novels, with which I heartily agree. But the conversation petered out, and John noted that the book hadn't given rise to the discussion of any issues, and it was generally agreed that there weren't really any issues to discuss; it was just the story of a pair of families.

Having now read the book I'd say that this is a book in which as in a soap much happens on the level of event - as you would expect in the story of two generations of two families - but as in a soap nothing much happens in terms of development of theme. The structure of the book is circular, beginning and ending with Fish's death, and you do very much get the feeling of not having moved on in insight, rather having simply watched a vivid tableau and got to know and love a set of characters. There are themes, those of luck and autonomy, guilt and responsibility, betrayal and loyalty, and the novel proper begins with a situation in which Sam Pickles and his family are in thrall to his sense of luck (the 'shifty shadow'). But the novel shifts focus (if entertainingly and excitingly) to other characters and other story strands, and any resolution of this theme is forced and indeed sentimental: the birth of a child which banishes the malignant ghosts of the house. In fact, I found the last part of the novel disappointingly sentimental, with a telling loss of rhythm in the prose and a certain coyness or perhaps formality creeping into the previously gritty diction. And I found I agreed about the narrative device: ultimately, I couldn't see any thematic point in the use of an after-life narrator.

At the time of the discussion it seemed to me that this book was likely to be great in the most serious sense of the word, and I asked the others if they thought it was. They didn't think so, but they thought it a great read. For much of its length while I was reading it I couldn't imagine how they could be so lukewarm, but having ended up disappointed I'm afraid I have to agree.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Rachel Fenton said...

I read a review about this book some time ago but I don't remember what it said! Perhaps that's as much as I need to know, but I'm still going to hava a look for this book and see for myself.

Great review.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I'll be interested to know what you think, Rachel.