‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton

cloudstreetAn iconic modern Australian classic, Cloudstreet is a sweeping saga of twenty years in the lives of two neighbouring families living in Perth, Western Australia from post World War II until the late 1960s. It’s a broadchurch narrative of the large, boisterous Lamb family and their landlord neighbours, the uptight Pickles.

Down on his luck, losing four fingers in a foolish accident and a love of spending as much of his money as he can at the racetrack, Sam Pickles and family (Dolly, an unfaithful wife, and three kids) unexpectedly inherit a house plus a lump sum of cash. The house is enormous for their needs – the emptiness highlighted by the prompt loss of the cash at the local bookies. Unable to sell the house for 20 years (a wise provision in the will of a now deceased cousin), the Pickles build a makeshift division inside and out – and rent one half to the almost destitute Lamb family. Two dysfunctional families come together under one roof.

So begins this rollicking sprawl of a novel as the two families collide, bickering, judging, ignoring, laughing, mourning, crying, fighting a way through their everyday lives.

It’s the Lambs who look to make the most of their opportunities – a distinct work ethic overseen by Ma (Sergeant-Major) Lamb that sees the front room converted into a (successful) shop serving the neighbourhood, children (mostly) married off and the eldest son, Quick, finally coming good after a mid-novel waywardness. It’s a boisterous, energetic household with much laughter, hard work and some sadness (their son, Fish, a handsome, once-popular larrikin, is brain-damaged due to a fishing accident witnessed early in the narrative).

All is very different next door. A wayward Sam; an unimpressed Dolly who steadfastly ignores her neighbours; a bookish Rose who takes on the household duties as her mother spends more and more time at the local boozer (the two boys rarely feature). Unlike the religious, hardworking Lambs, the Pickles look to luck (lady luck provided the house, after all) and a minimum of graft to get by.

Full of heart, Tim Winton’s ambitious novel may pall towards the end, but in the interim we witness two families coming together during a period of comfortable, conservative Australian history. Global events (Bay of Pigs, Korean war, assassination of John F Kennedy) have little impact on the daily lives: Australian economic and social policies mentioned only in passing. Only the Nedlands Monster – a Perth serial killer who terrorised the city over a four-year period in the early 60s – is given any significant scope of the outside world. Instead, Cloudstreet is a celebration of community and is the story of the everyday – domesticity, the struggle for survival, births, marriages, deaths – and the dogged endurance of both families. It’s an honest portrayal, full of humour and fulsome characters but devoid of overt sentimentality or melodrama.

Constantly seen as the most important Australian novel ever written (by critics and readers’ polls alike), Cloudstreet was the recipient of the 1992 Miles Franklin Award.

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‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash

flounderingA convincing, tough, unsentimental yet moving storyline more than smacks of truth as brothers Tom and Jordy come to terms with an unstable, broken mum who, having abandoned them on the doorstep of their gran twelve months earlier, has turned up again. Without a word, she whisks them off on a road trip the boys will never forget.

Loretta seemingly has no plan – and very little money – other than to head west. Days of sleeping in an old rust bucket of a car with the boys still in their school uniforms and surviving predominantly on chocolate and soda shoplifted along the way follow.

Eleven year-old Tom is our narrator, a boy who sees a lot but understands little. Loretta is slowly falling apart, fragments of a desperate woman experienced on the periphery of Tom’s vision. When the three find shelter in an old caravan park on the west coast, the sense of menace is just out of view as the slightly older, surly Jordy attempts to protect his brother.

Floundering is a grim, anxiety-ridden experience. Yet its vivid language and powerful sense of character, presented by the author without any judgement, drags us into the  squalor of the road trip and the inhospitable dereliction of the coastal campsite. As Tom says of his brother when they realise they have been abandoned once more, “there’s a little piece of string connecting us, and I got no choice but to go with the pull of it.” And that describes the effect Romy Ash’s debut novel has on its readers. And I, for one, am glad to have done so.

Shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, Romy Ash lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

‘Sorry’ by Gail Jones

sorryAn elegant, elegiac tale of childhood, memory, friendship and love, Jones’ deft narrative and luminous prose creates a compelling and compassionate story.

Sorry is set in the remote town of Broome in northern Western Australia in the late 1930s/early 1940s and the onset of war. A young English anthropologist and his wife, Stella, struggle with the harsh conditions of their new surrounds, living in little more than a shack several miles from town. Their lonely daughter, Perdita, makes friends with a deaf mute boy, Billy, and an Aboriginal girl, Mary. The trio develop a deep and profound bond until tragedy strikes. Their lives are torn apart and, coinciding with Japanese bombardment of the northern Australian coastline, are forced, for different reasons, to travel south to Perth.

Written in a mix of first and third person, Sorry is essentially a memory of an older Perdita looking back on events, the fractured chronology providing a level of objectivity and evaluation for the adult Perdita.

Deeply traumatised by events, dealing with a profound stutter and an unstable, Shakespeare quoting mother, Perdita is an isolated and bullied teenager. It is only with foster parents, Flora and Ted Ramsay, that she is introduced to stability and a sense of normality. But, in reconnecting with Mary and Billy in Perth, Perdita’s perception of ‘normal’ is at odds with the White European values of 1940s Australia.

The word ‘sorry’ has complicated meanings in Australia insofar that it took an Australian government until 2008 to apologise to the Stolen Generations and formally acknowledge the suffering caused by decades of mistreatment of Indigenous Australians. Gail Jones’ Sorry is a personal testament in the spirit of reconciliation, a novel of sacrifice and loyalty, of childhood and innocence with its hopes, its aspirations and, devastatingly, its lost opportunities.

And only then, turning the pages, peering at what Mary had read, did she begin to know, did she begin to open and grieve. There was a flood of hot tears, and a sudden heart breaking.

 I should have said sorry to my sister, Mary. Sorry, my sister, oh my sister, sorry.

Gail Jones’ fourth novel was shortlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award (her third time on the shortlist in four years) but lost out to Steven Carroll and The Time We
Have Taken
.

‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

shallowsWinton’s first Miles Franklin Award (with only his second novel) brings together the past and the present in its story of the Western Australian whaling town of Angelus – the fictitious coastal settlement that features in many of Winton’s subsequent novels.

The town, having seen better days, is the last remaining remnant of Australia’s whaling industry and, in 1978, present-day attitudes to the mass-slaughter gives rise to outside demonstrators descending in numbers. The threat to the livelihood of Angelus and the disruptions they cause both on land and out to sea are interwoven with stories of present day characters as the town plans for its 150-year anniversary.

It’s a narrative of loneliness and desperation, of ideology and commerce, of lost dreams and petty quarrels that have hung over Angelus for generations.

One local, Queenie Coupar, joins the anti-whaling group, the last member of a family that can trace its lineage back to the 1830s and the early, inhumane beginnings of its industry. Her stance leads to a separation from her husband Cleve, barely 18 months into their vows. It is their misery apart that is the core of Shallows as Queenie finds herself involved in more and more dangerous protests. Cleve, meanwhile, drowns his sorrows in cheap alcohol and reads the journals of Nathaniel Coupar, the first of the whaling family members.

It’s vividly written and sets a tone Winton constantly explores in his later books. Shallows may not be a classic, but, through strong characterisation and involving narrative, it’s still powerful stuff.

Shallows was awarded the 1984 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Breath’

Breath-New-Film-PosterA sensitive adaptation of Tim Winton’s prize-wining novel, debut feature director Simon Baker (The Devil Wears Prada, TV’s The Mentalist) captures beautifully the complexities of coming-of-age.

Quiet, twelve year-old Pikelet (newcomer Samson Coulter) and his best mate, the thrill-seeking Loonie (a superb debut from Ben Spence), discover the joys of surfing, mentored by one of the world’s best, Sando (Baker himself). But friendships become strained in the  search for danger.

A poetic love story (of friendship, of family, of oneself, of the ocean itself), Breath is a stunningly shot step back into the 1970s. Winton is a writer of intrinsically Australian stories with universal resonance – Breath is honest, nostalgic and visually beautiful.

Rating: 75%

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2015

1503647227678My first completed Miles Franklin Award shortlist for a given year! The Award, presented each year to a novel which “presents Australian life in any of its phases”, was first established back in 1957 (making it older than the Booker) with Patrick White and Voss the first recipient.

The 2015 Award was presented to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, the fourth woman in a row to win. The irony was not lost on the Australian literary world – following controversy over all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011, the alternative Stella Prize was established for novels written by women and first presented in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany and Mateship With Birds (a further irony is that the 2013 Miles Franklin Award shortlist was an all-women affair).

The 2015 shortlist:
Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys
Sofie LagunaThe Eye of the Sheep
Joan LondonThe Golden Age
Christine PiperAfter Darkness
Craig SherborneTree Palace

With the exception of Christine Piper’s debut novel After Darkness, the shortlisted books all feature children as significant characters and dealing with abuse, domestic violence, dysfunctionality and/or tensions within the family.

It was not a ‘classic’ year – the shortlist is a solid list of well-written books, predominantly domestic in theme and outlook, but which lack a greater perspective. Only Piper’s narrative of the internment of Japanese residents on Australian soil during World War II looks beyond the immediacy of environment, whether rural (Tree Palace) or suburban.

Strong in context – little is written about the internment of ‘aliens’ in Australia in WWII – but not very convincing in content, After Darkness is, to my mind, the weakest of the works on the shortlist. A renowned short story writer, Piper’s novel would have made an excellent long short story. Tree Palace also struggles – strong on authentic dialogue but its lack of social authenticity weakens the overall narrative.

The three novels directly involving children are the strongest works on the shortlist. Like Tree Palace, Joan London’s The Golden Age, whilst eminently readable, needed more social edginess in its telling of 1950s provincial Perth wracked by the devastating polio epidemic and its impact on a Hungarian refugee family, survivors of the war.

That leaves Golden Boys and The Eye of the Sheep, pretty neck-and-neck in my personal opinion. But by a very short head, I favoured Sonya Hartnett’s novel. Sofie Laguna’s story of six year-old Jimmy Flick was superb until the last chapter – a too-neat tying of knots and a father’s redemption having emotionally abused Jimmy throughout. Abuse is also prevalent in the disquieting Golden Boys, set in the 1970s and a time of confused innocence that turns out to be a rude, confronting coming-of-age with its own codes of conduct and justice.

So personally my vote would have gone to Golden Boys – but by so short a head that I have no issue with The Eye of the Sheep being favoured over Sonya Hartnett’s novel (and having recently met Sofie, I completely understand why she would not want her novel to spiral down into the dark underbelly of child abuse and leave the very loveable Jimmy in such a negative space).

 

‘Three Summers’

three-summers-posterSince the early 80s, British comedian and writer Ben Elton has worn his politics and heart on his sleeve. Classic TV series such as The Young Ones, Blackadder and Comic Relief attest to this.

An older Elton may have mellowed, but his Australian feature debut Three Summers retains sociopolitical grandstanding (indigenous land rights, refugees) along with several swipes at the establishment. But in a more genteel, easy to digest manner than the manic Elton of old.

Set at a weekend folk festival over three years, stories intertwine as performers and audience members return year after year. A rom-com is at the heart of Three Summers and whilst, by year three, the energy of the film is on the wane, the comic timing from the likes of Magda Szubanski (Babe, TV’s Kath & Kim) as the on-site radio presenter makes for an enjoyable and good-natured couple of hours.

Rating: 60%

‘Dirt Music’ by Tim Winton

dirt-musicTim Winton is something of an Australian national treasure – four-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award plus one shortlist from 10 novels, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, numerous Australian Premier’s Literary Awards and any number of adaptations of his books and short stories for stage, television and film.

Whilst his earlier Cloudstreet (1991) is regarded as a seminal Australian novel and taught in schools across the Commonwealth, Dirt Music (2001) is garlanded with more acclaim and awards. A film, to be directed by Phillip Noyce starring Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell, is currently in development (but don’t hold your breath – it’s been ‘in development’ for a number of years).

Forty year-old Georgina ‘Georgie’ Jutland is in a rut of domestic tedium and social isolation. Privileged white upper middle-class background from the “Perth dress circle” counts for nothing as she finds herself in the (fictional) isolated fishing settlement of White Point a few hours drive out of Perth.

Having rebelled at a young age against her mother and younger sisters’ constant interest in superfluous shopping trips, Georgie has made her own way in life – including dropping out of law and training as a nurse. A stint in Saudi Arabia left her exhausted and disillusioned with her chosen profession – to the extent she reinvented herself again.

Now, two or three years later, she finds herself playing house with taciturn widower Jim Buckridge and his two young teenage sons. Made hugely wealthy by the fishing boom of the 80s with sales of lobster, abalone and prawn to the Asian market, Jim is cock of the (virtually) lawless town, a town with its own violent secrets and where “nearly every owner-skipper had himself a trophy house built with the proceeds of the boom.”

But money hasn’t bought class to the isolated township. “Even after the boom when many families became instantly – even catastrophically – rich and the law came to town, they were, in any estimation, as rough as guts.”

Georgie is very much the outsider ­– partially through choice, in part due to a degree of suspicion by the locals. So when by chance early one morning she sees evidence of a ‘shamateur’ illegally poaching the fishing waters, Georgie feels no compunction to “protect millionaires from one bloke and his dog.”

Her decision sets in motion an epic of a story that takes in the vast, watery landscapes of the northern extremes of Western Australia, the lives of several residents of White Point and brings to the fore Georgie’s relationship, past and present, with her family.

Nothing remains secret for long in White Point: even Lu Fox’s pre-dawn forays. The killing of his dog and torching of his dilapidated 4WD gets the message across. But by then Georgie, drawn to a local who is more of an outsider than she, has already put her relationship with Jim to the test. Georgie is in the thrall of a White Pointer who has read extensively and yet remains something of a mystery, surrounded as he is by tragedy. Neither would call it love, yet they cannot stay away from each other, united as they are in their own form of grief and struggles in coming to terms with a sense of loss and their wrecked lives.

Forced as he is to leave White Point, Lu heads north to the (fictional) archipelago of Coronation Bay in the far north, seeking, as he is, isolation and solace. Initially, Georgie attempts to deal with her loss by immersing herself in more of the same tedious routine.

But, as the novel simultaneously unfolds, layer by layer, Lu’s journey to the north and Georgie’s downward spiral, so Dirt Music heads inevitably towards a momentous finale that may – or may not – have the ending both have been seeking.

It is a powerful, evocative story. This is not a tour guide through the red dirt or pristine white-sanded beaches of Australia. Instead, Dirt Music is at times “like wading through barbed wire”, the stunning idyllic beauty of the islands susceptible to violent cyclones, plagues of mosquitoes, intense heat and more. The destructive bigotry of the bogans of White Point sits alongside the emotional sterility of wealthy coastal suburban Perth.

Dirt Music is a story of a journey. On one, overt, level it is the story of Lu Fox’s journey to the north, the people he meets, the dangers he faces. Yet it is also about life’s journey, the balance between the choices we make and the events around us we cannot control. All three main characters (Georgie, Lu and Jim) each go on a personal journey of self- discovery, sometimes interconnected, more often in isolation. Damaged, like the land around them they are all three raw, rough and flawed.

Winner of the 2002 Miles Franklin Award (and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), Dirt Music is multi-layered and complex with striking imagery, memorable characters and, typical of Winton, a fascinating and wholly engaging storyline.

‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey

9781742372624_332x500Described as the Australian To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones is astute, witty, wise and a beautifully written coming-of-age story.

Opening at the tail end of 1965, bookish 13 year-old Charlie is disturbed late one night by Jasper Jones.

Just one year older, there are light years between the two boys. Solitary, rebellious, mixed-race, Jasper is an outcast in the (fictional) Western Australian mining town of Corrigan. His reputation precedes him.

With a mix of awe and fear, desperate to impress, Charlie responds to the older boy’s call for help. It is the end of his innocence as Jasper leads him to a hidden glade a little way out of town and reveals a terrible secret.

“I’m excited but afraid. I long to turn and wedge myself through the horse’s arse from which I’ve just fallen, to sit safe in the hot womb of my room. But this is Jasper Jones, and he has come to me.”

A secret not to be shared

Charlie must now carry the heavy burden as the town simmers in the almost unbearable summer heat. Tensions are running high with the disappearance of Laura Wisehart, the mayor’s daughter, in an already volatile atmosphere with the loss of jobs at the local mine and the unpopular war in Vietnam that has resulted in the deaths of conscripted Australian soldiers.

He’s not a brave boy, Charlie, preferring the safety of his books. But even home life is far from serene with his tempestuous and temperamental mother. Dissatisfied with a small town existence and lack of ambition of her teacher husband, frustrations are reaching boiling point. The young teenager therefore prefers to lock himself away than deal with the simmering tension between the adults and a constantly angry mother.

Only Charlie’s diminutive best mate, Jeffrey Lu, seems to be oblivious to all around him. Thick-skinned to the racist taunts, Jeffrey is out to prove that he’s the best cricketer in town. He is – by a very long way. But a Vietnamese teenager receives no favours or chances in this town.

And then there’s Eliza, Laura’s sister and the object of Charlie’s affections. But his secret involves Laura… Yet it appears that Eliza has something to tell him.

Multiple award-winner

Winner of the 2009 Indie Book of the Year, the 2009 Western Australia Premier’s Award and the 2010 Australian Book Industry Book of the Year Award and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and IMPAC DUBLIN award, Jasper Jones is just one of those books almost impossible to put down. An Australian Southern Gothic novel (Charlie is reading Mark Twain), the heat is real, the cicadas loud as the tension builds.

Jasper, Charlie, Jeffrey – they’re all outcasts. And whilst the secret cannot be revealed, Jeffrey remains an integral part of the hidden truth. None of the boys are accepted by the white supremacist townsfolk, yet little is as it appears. Not the mayor, not the chief of police. Jasper’s bruises support that.

Author Craig Silvey is a master storyteller, a wonderful creator of characters and a cracking good writer of dialogue. Engrossing and enthralling, it’s a book that will make you laugh – the friendship between Charlie and Jeffrey is at once moving as it is, at times, hilarious – as well as make you angry. This is small town Australia in the 1960s with its share of town bullies and racism.

But Jasper Jones is also one of those incredibly rare, beautifully written books that, having finished reading it, you suddenly realise there’s no more to come.