Tim Winton is an Australian writer rapidly acquiring a fine reputation. His novels are set in Perth, Western Australia and Cloudstreet is the first I have read.
It was recommended to me by a university friend who spoke very highly of him. It covers the period from World War Two to the 60s when Winton was born. Almost all of the novel is set in Cloudstreet in a house owned by Sam Pickles, a wastrel gambler with an a alcoholic promiscuous wife called Dolly, who lease part of the house to Lester and Oriel. She is a hard working, tough woman who runs a successful shop there. The Pickles have three children, one of which, Rose, features the most and Dolly and Lester five, of which two – Quick and Fish – appear the most. My friend admired it most for the creativity of the writing, the depiction of the urban poor which he regarded as the same standard as Dickens, and the quality of the description of the characters.
I could not share his admiration as I was far less engaged by the novel. There are events but little narrational drive, the chapters are short (again like Dickens who wrote initially as a serialist for newspapers), I found almost all the characters unattractive and was not much interested in post-War Perth. This provoked an interesting discussion of how much plot is important.
I freely admit I enjoy a good yarn and someone like Daphne du Maurier who can spin one. For me to sail down the Helford Estuary and the read of the exploits of a 17th century pirate in Frenchman’s Creek who made the same journey is a fascinating exercise and experience for me. There was another friend present from university who as well as being well read, is deeply knowledgeable on the art. He liked the novel and creative writing of Winton and drew an analogy with abstract art that hangs in his walls to figurative art which in his view was no more than decorative photographs.
This is a debate that has engaged the Royal Academy for years after its president Sir Alfred Munnings famously excoriated Picasso after a dinner. Whilst I see the creativity of abstract art and I certainly do not subscribe to the often-made comment “My three year old could do that”. I have a similar problem with it namely the absence of any emotional engagement. In the end it’s a matter of aesthetic preference and each view should be – and is in our case – respected.
I can see why Winton is so well respected. He is a passionate environmentalist, very much a cause of today but in my view he falls short of some of the contemporary American novelists, notably Ann Tyler, that write so well of another large, but not one of the major US cities – Baltimore. There is bleakness about Winton’s novels which chimes with the times but we will have to see whether in 25 years’ time they are still rated so highly when other social forces and trends will replace those of today.