I read this book soon after it was published, and loved it. For years I remembered it as a classic, a quintessential Australian family saga. I think I read it once more a couple of years later. Now, 16 years after it was published, I’ve re-read it. Some books, for me, hold their magic; I’ve read The Lord of the Rings twelve times, and I”m sure I’ll read it again in a couple of years’ time. I enjoyed re-reading Cloudstreet, but my attention faded towards the end, and I began to flick pages over to refresh my memory of what happens. I made myself go back and read it word for word. But yes, I did get bored. I think I’ve outgrown it.
First, let me say I’m not going to refrain from revealing the plot, as the book is widely read, often set as a school text, and many reviewers have discussed it in detail; there are 787 reviews on Goodreads.
Perhaps I felt a little distanced from it because my own life has changed so much since the first read; I have moved away from Perth in Western Australia, where most of the story is set, and I have moved out of the framework of the bourgeois family, finally. Also, a couple of years ago, I edited a PhD thesis critiquing Winton’s fictional representation of women as sexist, patriarchal, and generally belittling. I am simplifying a complex argument. But when I read this book again, I could see this was true, while recognising that the roles of the main women in the story — Oriel, Rose and Dolly — are true to the period, 1940s to 1960s. I’m still not sure if Winton has a view of women which transcends this stifling domestication and reduction of women; I’d have to read or re-read his other books to decide. Certainly there is not a female character in this book who steps outside the frame. As for the men, they are all, in different ways, lost; only Fish finds himself, and that only by leaving the human world.
The Lamb family come to live in the rambling old haunted house, Cloudstreet, and the rent they pay keeps the Pickles family going. Oriel Lamb is short, boxy woman, a matriarch, who rules her family and is a control freak. But she has a heart of gold, and is the rock of the family. Rose is Dolly Pickles’ daughter; she has her childhood stolen from her by her mother, who uses alcohol and casual sex to escape the frustrations of married life with Sam, a chronic gambler, who loses four fingers on one hand in a boating accident, and gambles away everything he earns. Rose stoically takes on the mothering role in the family, and hates her mother for it; she becomes anorexic in her teens, but comes good (except for a relapse after a miscarriage) when she gets a job and marries Quick, the oldest son of Oriel and Lester Lamb. Marriage, for Rose, though she eventually eschews the little nuclear family house in the suburbs and returns to the family fold in Cloudstreet, is her salvation from a life of despair and loneliness.
Despite having to share amenities in Cloudstreet, the two families are like oil and water; the Pickles are messy and dysfunctional, rattling around and outside the casing of the bourgeois family like dried peas, living separate lives from each other. The Lambs are close knit, hard working, with old-fashioned values; though the children are rather a mixed bunch, and the minor children in both families are little more than names; they are not embodied or developed, as are Rose, Quick and Fish. Quick’s childhood is blighted by his younger brother’s near drowning, which he feels responsible for. Fish, who had been the life of the family, the handsome, funny one whom everyone loves, becomes a perpetual child, with the sound of the river in his ears, and the longing to return to it. The book opens with a preview of the penultimate scene, a joint family picnic by the river, narrated in a voice which we come to recognise as that of Fish, not as a child or the simple man he becomes, but as a whole person-to-be, with wisdom and insight, a kind of prevailing spirit about to be freed from the limitations of space and time, worrying for and loving ‘those who go down the close, foetid galleries of space and time without you’. Fish the man is reunited with his lost spirit at the end. He can only ‘truly be a man’ by drowning again. In the last-but-one scene, he is in ecstasy as he enters the water:
And a hesitation, a pause for a few moments, I’m a man for that long, I feel my manhood, I recognize myself whole and human, know my story for just that long, long enough to see how we’ve come, how we’ve all battled in the same corridor that time makes for us, and I”m Fish Lamb for those seconds it takes to die, as long as it takes to drink the river, as long as it took to tell you all this, and then my walls are tipping and I burst into the moon, sun and stars of who I really am. Being Fish Lamb. Perfectly. Always. Everyplace. Me.
This passage whips out the rug from under my critic’s feet. It is a breathtaking concept, that Fish, that perhaps all of us, only become fully human and perfect as we die. It is the opposite argument to that of Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:
Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries.
There is no hint in Beckett’s world that death brings liberation for the spirit. Time and life are abominable, and death is night. The difference between an instant and a lifetime is only a perspective. Perhaps the perspective of the gravedigger is the truer perspective. Whereas, for Fish, immersion in the river is his escape from time, but the echo of his voice sounds throughout the book, and at the end, we realise that he is the narrator, the voiceover. It wasn’t until I finished the book the first time that I fully realised this, and I had to go back over it to grasp it. The passages in his own voice are fleeting and infrequent, but there is no doubt he is there, behind the scenes, watching it unfold, the game of life, his endgame.
I think, on reflection, I like this aspect of the story best, and it is this that I will carry with me and that may, one day, bring me back to revisit.