This month, we come to sunny Australia, the land of the Koalas and the Kangaroos. The region was inhabited for 50000 years by the aboriginal population before the first British settlement came to the continent in the 18th century. Currently the Commonwealth of Australia is one of the richest countries in the world and ranks second on the human development index globally.
Australian literature is a huge body of work comprising of many eminent literary names such as Patrick White and Cauleen McCollough. Of late, the sub-genre of aboriginal literature has gained much fame and acclaim. The region also produces high quality and popular Children’s literature. Typical Australian children’s books such as Snugglepot and Cuddlepie series and Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park are very popular.
For my reading, I am going with the classic work CloudStreet by Tim Winton. Set in a large house during the second world war, its the uplifting story of two families brought together by hard times who learn to get by and to appreciate all they have got just after World War II. The title and the plot have a whimsical feel to them. I am hoping that they will transport me into the beauty of the Australian bush and beaches.
Cloudstreet is the story of the Pickles and the Lambs, the two families who have suffered a generous bit more than their share of misfortunes and are struggling to get by in the Australia touched by World War II. The Pickles, after residing at the upstairs attic of a relative’s pub for a while, inherit his huge house after his passing, with a no-sale clause attached. The family is so lost, dysfunctional and poor that they do not know what to do with the house; how to keep it tidy and liveable. Out of their desperation to generate an income, they rent out a part of the house to the Lambs. A family suffering from the mental retardation of one of the sons due to temporary drowning, the Lambs are still one in spirit, held together by the matriarch, Oriel Lamb. They open a shop in one of the many rooms of the house and get by quite well. This attracts the jealously of their neighbours, particularly Dolly Pickles – an alcoholic, broken in spirit by her husband’s gambling and dabbling in adultery quite often – who is reminded of her own failures, looking at her neighbour’s success. The two families’ challenges only grow bigger along with their growing children and over time, situations bring the two groups closer.
What makes the book a classic is the way the relationships are detailed. Two themes appealed to me the most from the book. One of them is the way the character of the mentally challenged Fish Lamb is built and the exploration of his parents’ agony over his condition. During one of the discussions of the Lamb couple, remarking on Fish’s condition, Oriel says,
“We’ll give him the gentlest life we can, we’ll make it the best for him we know how. Lester agonised. How do we know what’s best? How do we make him happy? What does he think?”
Talking of the father’s anguish,
“There’d been times when he thought that the kid was better dead than to have to live all his life as a child, but he knew that being alive as being alive and you couldn’t tamper with that, you couldn’t underestimate it. Life was something you didn’t argue with, because when it came down to it, whether you barracked for God or nothing at all, life was all there was.”
Another impressive recurrence are the strong-as-steel female characters in the novel. The strongest of them all is definitely Oriel Lamb. She snatches away the birthday cake of her son Quick just as he is about to blow the candles, to give it to a paying customer. She feels she can’t really love any man as men are inherently weak creatures. She helps raise her father’s six children from his second marriage and sees them marching off to war one by one. She is determined that her family will survive come what may. The Pickles see her as bossy and annoying.
“She(Rose Pickle) couldn’t think why the very strength of that woman’s actions felt so unforgivable.”
However in the end the two families survive and have a decent life because of her struggles.
To conclude, CloudStreet, as a story, was predictable, as the families were bound to intertwine at some point. It is still an enjoyable read and an undisputable classic worth reading for someone testing the waters of Aussie literature.
Other options from Australia:
Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey
An ex-English clergyman and a country girl fall in love in the mid-nineteenth century Australia
Tomorrow, When the War Began – John Marsden
The first in the Tomorrow series, a young-adult sci-fi with Aussie teens in the lead.