Cloudstreet – classic description of Australian life, or not?

This was the novel selected for the last meeting of a bookclub that I attend. It’s also the favourite book of one of the members, meaning that she didn’t actually want it nominated and selected. And after the discussion we had at the meeting, I think I can understand. It doesn’t happen with all the books that we read, but sometimes, there is a sense that the discussion would improve immensely had someone raised questions for all of us to think about whilst reading. I typically go to wikipedia and then branch out if I think of something I want to check or research, but it seems like not all of us do (or have the time to do) that.

Anyways, on to the thoughts then…about why we Australians (or quasi-Aussies) connected with it much more than the others did.

The basic story – two families move into a rundown house in a big city and eek out an existence as different as night and day. Their children don’t want to stay, but in the end events, feelings etc change and they end up coming home, bringing new life into the place.

This tale probably could have taken place anywhere in the world (though possibly at different times depending on the level of society), as much of the proceedings are dependent on characterisation and the characters that lived in Cloudstreet could ostensibly have lived anywhere else. Messed up parentage, accidents, affairs, marital problems etc, many of the things that contributed to the ways the characters lived and the decisions they made are a huge feature of society (perhaps more of Western society than Asian though).

Sure, it was the story of the characters that keeps us reading the book the first time. I really wanted to know how their lives played out. Admittedly, I’ve gravitated towards this kind of “slice-of-life” story in recent years. All my favourite tv shows (from anime like Honey and Clover to Pride and Prejudice) fit quite well in this genre even if they have a few other elements. Spanning twenty years, covering some little things that people might go through in such a time frame – the laughter, the tears, the decisions and indecision, sex and love. In painting an impression of how members of two vastly different families interact with the world around them, Cloudstreet is a classic example of a slice-of-life tale with characters that readers can sympathise and empathise with.

However, that alone is not enough to draw most readers into reading it over and over again – there just isn’t enough time to read something twice if all you’re interested in is the story and the characters. To many who love it, the most appealing thing about Cloudstreet lies in the language. From the subtle dry humour that a friend loves (such as when Quick has to stifle his laughter because it just isn’t a time to laugh) to the slang that captures so much of the Australian spirit of life, the impression that comes through to those who know the attitudes behind the words is incredibly strong, and a wonderful reminder of an Australian way of life that is increasingly difficult to find in this day and age.

It’s not that one can’t enjoy Cloudstreet if one doesn’t know about the place and time it’s set in. Certainly, having lived in Perth, I remember details that might not interest others, such as Quick and Fish’s river escapade (Freo to Nedlands is a jaw-dropping distance to row!). However, the Australian accent can be heard on numerous movies and TV shows, and looking up and even discussing that context might make this tale a far more rewarding experience. Australians (there are several in our bookclub!) can probably suggest threads and tangents – such as “The Nedlands Monster” – that all others can read about in order to gain more insight into the lives behind this title. Hence the great importance of providing some sort of direction if people actually want to seriously discuss a piece of work, be it a novel, a film, a song etc.

In summary, I think we can say that whilst the events in Cloudstreet may, ostensibly, be imported into several other societies, that would require changing details that make it so quaintessentially Australian. However, recognising and appreciating these details isn’t easy even for Australians, as society has changed immensely over the last 50 years. Is it any wonder that Cloudstreet is on so many high school reading lists in Australia?

p.s. Soaps aren’t “slice-of-life”, because there is simply no way that ALL those dramas could happen to such a small group of characters over such a short period of time.

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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