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Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

book cover of Cloudstreet

I found it so hard to be bothered reading this book for the first third, and even for the first half. It irritated me that much. The lack of quotation marks and dialog tags really got on my nerves (what is it about male literary authors and thinking they’re being clever by continually making it unclear who is speaking?). The writing style rubbed me the wrong way, trying to simultaneously sound wankily high-falutin' and also crude and slangy. A lot of the time I would just skim-read because I didn’t feel like putting the mental energy into working out what some of those long descriptive passages were supposed to mean. If I wasn’t even Australian and familiar with the slang, who knows if I’d have got through it at all.

The first half of this book, and parts of the second half, are also just completely miserable to the point that I wondered why I even wanted to read such a dire, joyless tale. Some of the main characters – Sam, a lifelong gambler who, as we are told over and over, hands each of his paycheques straight over to the bookies; Dolly, the acid-tongued alcoholic; Rose, their embittered daughter who suffers a couple of times from anorexia; their neighbour Fish, who suffers brain damage as a child then dies at the end for no apparent reason… it’s not exactly a laugh a minute. The (many) sex scenes are also written in such an unflattering way as to put you off sex completely, I tell ya.

The book does benefit from settling down and gaining some focus in the second half. Rose Pickles and Quick Lamb emerge as the two main characters, although the others are still around, of course. Rose was, by far, the most sympathetic character in the book for me, so the second half’s focus on her (and less grim tone generally) pleased me. There were even a couple of bits that gave me a good laugh (like Sam Pickles' dismissal of the Liberals as “boss lovers”, or his abject shock when Dolly tells him black people can’t vote, and how he stammers back, “they should get a union”) – overall it was just enough for me to push my rating up by half a star. But even then, the second half makes some questionable decisions. That black character who just keeps cropping up randomly to give the Lambs or Pickleses some sage advice before retreating into the ether… um what? And then that ending, which tries to cast the death of a disabled person as some kind of joyful release?! If this book was released today it’d get “cancelled” in a heartbeat, geez.

Apparently this is a book that Australian schoolkids are regularly subjected to in English classes. I can only be thankful that not only was there never the slightest threat of this happening to me, but I’d never even heard of it when I was at high school. I disliked it enough reading it now; I hate to think how teenage me would have despised it. Very disappointed, overall.

★½

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.