One of the quotes on the cover of Nicholas Winton’s Cloudstreet reads: “‘Imagine Neighbours being taken over by the writing team of John Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez and you’ll be close to the heart of Winton’s impressive tale’ (Time Out)
Well, I thought. I’m a big fan of Marquez. And I certainly have been a fan of Neighbours in my time too (a few years back now, but the word “fanatical” would not be too strong.) OK, so Steinbeck has never really been my bag but hey – two out of three. It seemed worth a go. Plus, it was about Australia. Australia! Name to me the great books you’ve read set in Australia. Go on.
To my shame I’ve barely read a thing set there, seeming to spend my literary time slomping around North America. I can only think of the estimable Oscar and Lucinda, but nothing contemporary at all. The time had come.
Winton’s 1982 novel is about two working class Australian families that move into a single rambling Perth house in the late 1940s. You read that and you think you can see where it’s going: teenage love, intrigue, fallings out before an inevitable drawing together. A sort of Antipodean Cazalet Chronicles. But while those things all feature in some way, I can guarantee it’s not in the way you’d picture. Winton defies normal progressions and typical characters with a force of vision. So, easily the book’s most charismatic character is semi-drowned early on and lives out the rest of the book mentally disabled, stuck in an eternal childhood, a talismanic figure of guilt for his whole family. The protagonists remaining are wounded, flawed: either weak or brokenly strong, but totally unique. No stock characters here, no easy surrenders to sentiment. We see a beauty turn into a crone, broken by an unending addiction to alcohol and hated by her daughter. We see a maimed fisherman devote his life, fruitlessly, to the gambling table – with sudden, inconvenient flashes of extraordinary success that totally fail to turn his life around.
But of all the characters, the house at Cloudstreet is arguably the protagonist throughout, with its mysterious currents and heavings, its stories and secrets we never quite learn, its watching guardians, its moments of rage and hiatus. Winton has a lovely piece in the Afterword about the legacy of the lived and built environment and it is clear from the start that Cloudstreet is a house packed to the rafters with history, most of it bad. You’d think the magical realism of its sighs, voices and ghost figures would be awkward amidst an earthy story of basic human weaknesses and tragedies – but in fact it’s brought into one complete, elevated world.
This feat is achieved through a unique and enviable style: at once swinging and barrelling, instinctive and earthy, rowdy, lyrical, metaphorical. I’m not quite sure how he manages this. I could put it down to exquisite use of local imagery and dialect but the point is just that the effect is totally effortless. Reading up about Winton he’s been described as a prodigy who wrote his first book at 21 – which is to say, he’s that rare breed: a natural born writer.
But don’t give total credit to simple ability: with the mixture of artistry and pragmatism that distinguish his style I loved reading how Winton had three desks at home at some points in his life: one with a novel, one with short stories, one with a children’s book, so that he could keep constructively (i.e. financially) working for a living while accommodating the shifts of the writer’s muse.
This high art / common touch balance is so rarely struck – and so precious. As my thoughts run so much these days around the book I’d love to write if life circumstances conspired, this balance of the real and the figurative goes right up to the top of the wishlist – that fickle glimmering flash that whips the surface and the depths with equal power – all in the same few lines.