“It has this weird truthfulness, and observations without sophistication and trickery.”

Reviewer Brenda Walker explains why Australians love Cloudstreet – Tim Winton’s big, brilliant slab of a book, published in 1991.

The canvas of Cloudstreet is domestic yet immense. Our own lives, day to day, can feel like this. There is no distance in the storytelling, which moves swiftly between tenses and characters, never pausing to explain, trusting that you, the reader, will follow each deft and sudden switch, every exchange. This trust is not misplaced, judging by the popularity of the book.

Over the last 25 years, this novel has certainly caught the imagination of a wide range of readers and continues to top readers’ and critics’ lists. In 1992 it won the Miles Franklin Award.

In 1998 the novel was adapted as a stage play by Justin Monjo and Nick Enright and directed by Neil Armfeild. This production met with rave reviews in Australia and toured to Europe and the UK. A compelling television mini-series then followed in 2011, directed and produced by Matt Saville, with the screenplay by Tim Winton and Ellen Fontana. And now we have an opera- also Australian-grown.

Kerry Fox, Oriel in the mini-series, explains why the production remains a classic:

It’s very significant for Australia and if you try to work out what it is about the piece that makes it so extraordinary and moving, I think it has a naivety to it because (Winton) was so young when we wrote it. It has this weird truthfulness, and observations without sophistication and trickery.

Throughout the range of Winton’s fiction a spiritual element is not unusual, and in his 1986 novel, That Eye in the Sky, the narrator is an ‘innocent’ 12-year-old boy who accepts that there is more to reality than meets the eye in the physical world. Philosophers and theologians, writers and poets alike have pondered the nature of reality and have sought to explain it; and ordinary people to wonder about life’s meaning- its many numinous, unexplained occurrences. In this disturbing novel, Winton convinces us that it is simple to accept that the boy ‘sees’ and believes in another reality- a parallel world of equal validity- one that brings him certainty and solace.

So too does Fish Lamb- another ‘innocent’ and the central character in Cloudstreet. He remembers ‘a place’ where he has been when he almost drowned, a wondrous realm below the water- and he longs to return there.

It’s like Fish is stuck somewhere. Not the way all the living are stuck in time and space; he’s in another stuckness altogether. Like he’s half in and half out. You can only imagine and still fail to grab at how it must be… You have to make it up and have faith for that imagining.

Because the Lamb family have firmly believed in God, when Fish’s mother Oriel beats the water out of him and revives, they think that miracle has occurred. But too soon they release that ‘not all of Fish Lamb had come back’. They lose their faith in God and must then struggle to make sense of things, and eventually learn to accept ‘the strange otherness of the world’

After taking up residence in the aptly named No. 1 Cloud Street as the tenants of the wayward Pickles family, it soon becomes apparent that the ramshackle old house itself plays a significant role in the story. It creaks and groans ‘like the bellyaches of a whale’; a single piano note sounds repeatedly; the spirits of young Aboriginal girls are ‘felt’. And subtly in the background an Aboriginal man, a ‘guardian angel’ watches over the family.

In Cloudstreet Winton evokes numerous polarities; the most significant of these is the notion of dual realities- this world, and the otherworld- the ‘interleaved continuing plane’.  But another division is also apparent in the families: the hard-working, responsible Lambs as opposed to the irresponsible, immoral Pickles. The house itself is divided down the middle- in ruins on the one side, and on the other a shop, created by the enterprising Lambs; and outside a productive garden echoes ‘the split’. The characters are living in opposing worlds, but it is Fish and also Quick, who are aware of the duality- other realm.

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