Today is Australia Day--the 224th anniversary of the first settlement founded in the Land Down Under--at Port Jackson (Sydney), to be precise. Just by co-incidence, I finished Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, which takes place in the other "corner" from Sydney--Perth, the capital of Western Australia.
To be honest, there was a point, at the start of the novel, when I doubted that I would finish the book at all. I even thought of skipping Australia altogether, as I've read many Australian novels, and the point of the 52-Countries Challenge for me is to read as many foreign authors as I could, preferably in a language other than English. My feelings after finishing The Bone People had much to do with it. I left New Zealand feeling wrung out emotionally, and more than a little tired of young writer show-offery bravura. When I cracked open my new book and saw that it was written in a strange elliptical style, with willfully obscure headings like "In the Poo" and "Stickability" and no quotation marks AND a tense that shifted from present to past, seemingly at whim...well, I felt exhausted just looking at the pages. Added to this was not one, or two, but three horrific accidents within the first few scenes--one of them leaving a young boy terribly damaged (just like in my last book) and I thought, no, I just cannot do this again so soon.
Yet fate intervened--or rather, my inability to find the files of "First They Killed My Father" (yes, I know, another joyous title), my next selected audio book, and which I know I ripped. I had four hundred miles to drive within a few day period. I had to have an audio book. Nothing seemed to suit. Feeling guilty, as I all ready had a hardback copy, I listened to the first section of Cloudstreet, narrated by Peter Hosking. It made all the difference in the world.
Gone were my petty irritations with how strange the words looked on the page. And Peter Hosking (who sounds very much like Russell Crowe--and not just because of his accent--his voice timbre is very similar) did all the work for me in figuring out who was saying what. He did a wonderful job--talking pigs, mysterious Aborigine men, young girls, raddled old slatternly mothers, mentally shattered boys--all uniformally excellent. Better yet, the dry humor really came through in a way that I, in my faintly depressed state, had failed to notice while I was reading the book. A strange thing, too, the "Strine" such as "Carn. Lets go--I'm stranglin for a cuppa.--" actually was easier for my ear to understand than my ear; several times I peeked at the hard copy and laughed at the phonetic spelling, particularly at the dialogue.
So what's this book about? It's a simple story, really. Two working-class Perth families, the Lambs and the Pickles, share a falling down old mansion (and there's more to that tale than some ramshackle timbers) in the old section of Perth from the waning days of WWII to the mid sixities. One family believes that they are being squeezed by "the Hairy Hand" (fate); the other family believes in making their own luck. That's all there is to it. Children grow up. Young women go out with (badly) chosen young men. Old men lose money (a lot of money) at the racetrack. Beautiful blowsy women grow more blowsy and less beautiful. And Fish, the boy who made me almost stop reading the book, stays the same in mind if not in body.
At this point, "Cloudstreet" could be any mediocre slice-of-life drama, yet it is so much more than that. Tim Winton's prose is glorious--both sinuous and muscular and studded with arresting similes. Red sails on rich men's yachts "shudder like singer's lungs." The "chooks", sleeping in the henhouse, are "racked along their perch like mumbling hats." a black eye is "oystered up with swelling." Even that, too, could be merely empty virtuosity, a linguistic prestidigitation with nothing behind the words, but the author is also a master of psychology. He's sympathetic with his characters without being sentimental. He's equally good with women as well as men, and I found the relationship between Dolly and Rose (told by both of their points of view) to be especially compelling.
For most of the book, Cloudstreet was a five star listen, but it seemed to lose a bit of steam during the last quarter. Part of it was due to the rather episodic nature of the book; when the children grow up, part of the natural momentum of the story is lost. The magic realism --the talking pig, the glowing man--among other things, was not handled as well as it might have been; it seemed to be a superficial overlay rather than integral to the story; the problem with the house, in particular, was resolved in a heavy-handed, even mawkish way. Also obtrusive was Winton's handling of a real-life occurence, the Nedlands Monster. It just didn't seem to fit, particularly when the author showed events through this seemingly extraneous character's eyes. It's a pity that these problems occurred towards the end of the book, but it is still a very solid read.
I had hoped that there would be a natural progression to my next country, Indonesia, but only Japan, the United States, and England were mentioned in Cloudstreet. Next stop, a unnamed island off of Java, but first some comments on reading books in translation, and a review of Edith Grossman's book "Why Translation Matters".