Australia: neighbours

For almost any British child of the eighties, Australia feels like a home from home. Sanitised and unreal though they may have been, Erinsborough and Summer Bay were the favourite after-school hangouts in the days before cable and satellite TV and the characters that lived there were our friends. We flicked our sentences up at the end to fit in with them, talked Alibi in the playground and devised elaborate make-believe games involving Madge, Harold and Mrs Mangel. When I was lucky enough to have the chance to drive round the coast from Perth to Sydney a few years back, it really did feel like being both home and away.

I was excited to read my Australian choice for another reason too: this was the book that started this crazy venture to read a story from every country in the world. Last year, fellow blogger Jason Cooper stopped by my A year of reading women blog and said that he really wanted me to read Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. I pointed out that Tim Winton didn’t fit with my theme, but Cooper was adamant: I would have to do another blog in 2012 and find a theme to fit round the book.

‘What about reading books from different countries?’ he suggested.

‘What about reading books from every country?’ I countered.

And so A year of reading the world was born.

Luckily, I can see why Cooper loves this book. Charting the story of two hard-up families forced to live together in a tumbledown house on the outskirts of Perth in 1943, the novel creates a world every bit as absorbing as the soap operas of my childhood — and which bears more than a passing resemblance to them: the narrative is divided up into neat little in-between-the-ad-breaks-size chunks, the story has an episodic quality as it pans round the large cast of characters and stretches out across 20 years, and there is even a relative who disappears off to Adelaide when times get tough.

But Cloud Street is more than a literary version of Ramsay Street. Against the backdrop of the war and its fallout, Winton unfolds the tribulations, rivalries and neuroses of the debt-ridden Pickles family and their tenants the Lambs, who move into town after a shrimping accident leaves their eldest brain-damaged and strips them of their faith. These he uses to test the boundaries of conventional wisdom on fate, personhood, evil and luck, charting the gradual coming together of the two clans as each of their members seeks some sort of peace with his or her lot.

It sounds like a recipe for mawkishness. What saves it is Winton’s extraordinary facility for crystallising delicate images and emotions in the bluff language of the everyday. Whether he’s describing ‘chooks racked along their perch like mumbling hats’ or someone’s reaction to the revelation of the human side of a serial killer — ‘There’s no monsters, only people like us. Funny, but it hurts’ — he manages to shuck the feeling he wants from the husk of bluster and ostentation that most writers never succeed in losing completely.

That said, Winton could have done with taking a leaf out of the soapwriters’ scripts in one respect: the last 10 per cent (in Kindle terms), where final cadence after final cadence ripples through the text, could have done with some serious cutting. Without the pressure of the six o’clock news to focus his mind, Winton gives in to the temptation to linger in the world he has constructed with the characters he loves longer than they need him.

All the same, I can’t say I blame him terribly much. It is a marvellous creation. And, hey, they tell me Neighbours is still going on Channel 5…

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. Publisher (Kindle edition): Picador (2011).