Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991) is a fantastical and vivid exploration of the lives of the 20th century ‘Aussie battlers’ whose reputations fabricated the Australian identity present in today’s society. The novel resonates the idea that this identity was forged through hardship, tragedy, faith and luck in a country shaped by injustice. I believe that a critical analysis of the text provides a window for true understanding of its multidimensional nature, as it incorporates magical realism and a deep sense of spirituality that highlight the importance of unity and social cohesion of the multitude of characters. We learn vicariously through these characters who share traits we inherently possess and lives we can relate to. The formulation of a sense of place amidst changing times in a landscape mirroring the emotions and mental state of the people is expressed through a uniquely idiomatic Australian vernacular. This produces meaning and cohesion that flows in a logical sequence of events, primarily through dual narration from Fish Lamb, a man split between two worlds.
Winton uses his text to portray a unique view of the lives of two very different Australian families through an unlikely paradox. Existential ideas about self are explored through dual narration by Fish Lamb. Although Fish is intellectually disabled in reality, he transcendentally can see into the minds of all the characters and feel what they feel. This causes him to be the most clear sighted, omniscient figure in the novel in a deeply spiritual sense. Fish is caught between two worlds, the temporal and the metaphysical, “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”. Since the near drowning in his childhood which tore his two halves of consciousness apart, Fish has longed to return to the water, a recurring motif throughout the novel. The water symbolises healing of not only fish, but of his whole broken family. The whole novel can be depicted as a memory sequence in the moments before he returns to the river and drowns healing his broken spirit. The prequel alludes to the end of the novel and how the transcendent Fish will be the primary narrator; the next four hundred pages are caught in a moment, where Fish tells his story and concludes with his two spirits aligning in a moment of clarity. This final moment is conveyed through magical realism as the two narrative voices become one, “I feel my manhood, I recognise myself whole and human…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.” This dualistic narrative technique gives Cloudstreet cohesion and flow, with Fish’s story at the epicentre of all occurrences, as he can relate the feelings and desires of every character through a spiritual connectivity with their souls. The use of this technique causes the reader to develop a deeper understanding of the minds of the characters and their struggles as they find their place in the new Australia.
The landscape and architecture are reflective of the emotional states of each of the members of the two families living in the ‘great continent of a house’, that is number one Cloudstreet and of the wider population. This objective correlative is significant as it creates layers of meaning that are reflective of the whole of Australia not exclusively the microcosm of the Pickles and Lambs. The land of Australia had been stolen from the Indigenous people; they were kicked off their land, killed, reduced to slaves and rejected by society. The continent is riddled with guilt from past wrongs and the horrors inflicted upon the Aboriginal people are exposed through a small, dark room at the heart of Cloudstreet. The room contains the spirit of an Aboriginal slave girl who committed suicide within its walls; her spirit gives the house a haunting life as it moans and groans as she is split between life and death. Winton uses this to portray the importance of reconciliation between white people and the Aboriginals; her spirit cannot be set free until there is union and apologies for past injustices. This indigenous connection forms a basis for much of the novel as many events centre in this room, especially for Fish who as the transcendent narrator can hear the voice of the girls’ trapped spirit as he plays the piano in the room. “Fish lamb clumps the piano, but all that comes from it is the thick unending drone middle C”; This is a metaphor for the relationship between indigenous and white Australians as we try to coexist after unjustly inflicted hardship, trying to progress but stuck between our past and our future, alike the note middle C, neither treble nor bass.
The articulation and diction of the voices of the characters allows them to speak for themselves and for the many different views and perceptions of reality to be communicated. The belief that ‘Lady Luck’ and the ‘shifty Shadow’ have an influence on the events of our lives is expressed by Sam as his choices are based off if he can feel the presence of ‘Lady Luck’, “Luck bounces from one person to another”. This belief in a higher power often results in consequences for Sam as he is an avid gambler who loses everything his family has multiple times which causes significant heartbreak and struggle. The reality of Sam’s addiction and personality is relatable to audiences of all times and this brings his character to life. Juxtaposing this view of reality is the characterisation of Oriel, her self-determination, loyalty to her family and hardworking attitude is the driving force behind her family pushing through times of hardship. Her matriarchal control only wavers when she loses fish and her faith in a higher power is diminished, “Since Fish I’ve been losing the war. I’ve lost my bearins.” The psychological exploration of each of these characters who are wounded by hardship gives an aura of realism and relatability that makes Cloudstreet a significant representation of the enduring struggles of the Australian people through every generation.
Through Tim Winton’s novel, the reader gains insight into the lives of the people who built the foundations for the Australian identity we are proud of today. This identity was forged through hardship, faith and luck in a country that did not belong to us and could not fully progress until past wrongdoings had been reconciled. The importance of unity and social cohesion is emphasised throughout the episodes in the novel and the contribution of each individual in building society is acknowledged. Through a critical analysis of Cloudstreet, I have personally gained a greater insight into what it means to be Australian and made aware of the plethora of individual responses to hardship and personal struggle, consequently further developing my understanding of the human condition.