Cloudstreet

Cloudstreet, Tim Winton, 1991

  • Australia, #20
  • Kindle, £4.19
  • Read January 2015
  • Rating: 4.5/5
  • Recommended for: daydreamers, homebodies, fishers of men

Yet another failure of diligence in note-taking. This was the last book I read for Australia (it’s not the last on the list, and it’s not the last one I’m going to blog about, but I read it out of order because I was moving back to England after several months in America and I wanted to read all my physical books before I left. Cloudstreet was on my kindle, so I saved it for the plane ride. And maybe the fact that I read the bulk of it on an overnight transatlantic flight accounts for my inability to recall many specific details about the story even though I read it less than six months ago).

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All I wrote at the time was “loved.” A ringing endorsement, but a vague one. I remember it as a warm and chaotic story, jumbled with characters and lives jostling together in merry confusion, much like the over-filled house on Cloud Street that gives the book its name. It reminded me a little bit of The Harp in the South in its warm depiction of love and squalor1, of almost cheerful poverty and familial tenderness. It also couldn’t help but remind me of The Shark Net, which I had just read. It’s not similar in tone or quality but it covers the same time period of Perth history and as such is a very good introduction to Cloudstreet‘s setting. I’m not sure what I would have made of Winton’s inclusion of The Nedlands Monster, a serial killer who murdered eight people in Perth in the early 60s, if I hadn’t just read his story in The Shark Net. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that he was a real person who committed real crimes; I would have assumed it to be another strange element among many in Winton’s rather magical story.

The story is not without its problems. Most glaring, to me, is the way it includes Aboriginal people, and more importantly the way in which it fails to include them. There are two important Aboriginal figures (I hesitate to call them “characters” because they are not in any way fully realized or fleshed-out0501227 like the book’s other characters) in the story. One is the ghost of a girl who killed herself in the house on Cloud Street when it was a mission housing young aboriginal women who had been taken from their families (part of the Stolen Generations, which I’ve touched on in my post on Sally Morgan’s My Place), and the other is an old man who appears at times of trouble or danger, and who may or may not be real. By creating these characters, Winton invites us to acknowledge Australia’s shameful history of genocide and suppression of its native people. And yet there are no Aboriginal characters in the story. There are no Aborigines at all. Cloudstreet‘s Perth is effectively whitewashed. The issue of race relations is raised only to be dismissed as the past, a ghost that can be exorcised by a bunch of white people learning to get along with each other (this is literally what happens). The one modern Aboriginal figure is a magic, vague, and unrealized presence, possibly an angel, possibly imaginary, maybe the embodiment of the Spirit of Australia–the sort of Magical Negro stereotype that doesn’t actually do any favors to the people it seeks to lionize. He’s not a person, he’s a symbol, and being reduced to a symbol is not helpful for real people still living with the effects of a eugenics program that ended less than a generation ago (or, by some accounts, is still ongoing). I want to be careful about this, because I haven’t been to Australia and I don’t have much exposure to Australian culture; I only know what I read. But the ways in which Winton marginalizes Aborigines here is similar to the way African Americans are treated in American literature (and film and tv). It’s reductionist and appropriative at the same time and I find it very problematic. Would it have been better for Winton to leave Aborigines out of his book altogether? Probably not; the omission of minorities from popular culture is equally problematic in its own way. But by raising issues of Aboriginal history and identity, Winton invites us to scrutinize his treatment of native Australians and to ask how his book views Aborigines in modern society (the answer: it doesn’t).

With that caveat (and it is, admittedly, a big one) in mind, Cloudstreet is still one of the best Australian books I read and it deserves its place among the country’s favorites. It’s a sprawling, beautiful novel and I highly recommend it.

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Literal cloud street. Haha. California, 2005

1 Yes, I did sneak a Salinger reference in there. And to be honest Winton isn’t too far off from Salinger–a bit more mystical and poetic, but the same minute attention to the inner lives of his subjects, and I think fans of Salinger would like Winton as well.

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