In the ‘Writers on Writers’ series, leading authors reflect on an Australian writer who has inspired and fascinated them. In this latest book, On Tim Winton, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist GERALDINE BROOKS muses on another one of Australia’s greatest writers, one of her all-time favourites, four-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award, Tim Winton.
In 1991 I was in London, where I was then based, back for a brief respite between reporting assignments in the Middle East. Browsing my local bookstore, I came across Cloudstreet. They didn’t have a lot of Australian books in the Hampstead Waterstones. An occasional Keneally; a Carey, perhaps. Winton? The name was new to me. I took the book home.
‘ … one day, one clear, clean, sweet day in a good world in the midst of our living …’ ‘ … the beautiful, the beautiful the river …’
It was an astonishment, this language, biblical in its cadence. Poetic, prayerful. And yet, in the same paragraphs, a mob was chiacking, drinking tea, eating pasties in briny sunshine. Under a peppermint gum. Not a rowan or a cottonwood from a British or American novel, vague in my mind like the generic green blob in a child’s drawing. A twisty-limbed, deeply fissured peppermint gum like the one in Mum’s front yard. And here’s a Moreton Bay fig – I can see its immense muscularity, feel the cool of its emerald shade – and now a Norfolk pine, and I know exactly how its branches spiral upward, fanning a hot sky.
Then one of the characters says, ‘Prolly.’
Three pages into Cloudstreet and I could see it, smell it, taste it. Home. I could hear it: our idiom, in all its insouciant vitality, delivered with uncompromising fidelity. Australian writing. Cringe-free. No fucks given if people in New York and London don’t get it.
I looked up from my perch on the couch. Rain rapped lightly on the window and dripped off ivy-draped stones in the graveyard across the lane.
‘All she needed was summer … She wanted to be brown and oily on some beach, to feel the heat slowly building in her skin until she couldn’t bear it and had to run down to the shore and flop into the gutter between surf banks and have her flesh fizz and prickle with chill.’ Yes, I thought. That’s what I need. To be 10 years old, sitting with my cousin in the back of my uncle’s ute, slapped round on the hot metal, heading for the beach.
Instead, in Hampstead, evening sucked away the watery light, draining what little colour London offered in mid-December. It was only three o’clock. When I went to put the kettle on, my basement kitchen was stygian. At that hour, in Sydney, Mum would be taking her cuppa outside. Around her would be clusters of bougainvillea, red-gold like the heart of a fire, and ripe grapefruit as big as your head.
I carried my tea back to the sofa and returned to the ungainly house on Cloud Street, the ungirt lives within. The sounds and smells of that house chimed with memories of the double terrace on Bland Street, Ashfield, where I’d spent my early childhood, trailing after Mum or Dad as they wrangled the odd characters who rented our rooms and paid off our mortgage. Miss Martin and Mrs Patterson, the elderly sisters who lived in dark quarters downstairs; Lutzie, the sketchy conman in the back flat; Goldie, the young newlywed whose kitchenette always smelled of burnt toast.
These people spoke in the same cadences as the Lambs and the Pickles, existed in a similar state of precarity and struggle.
I had never read a novel that grazed so closely against my own lived experience. It was an unvarnished vision, meticulous in its recollection of the banal, the mundane and the sometimes cruelly philistine nature of mid-century Australian life; vivid in its evocation of the straitened options of the working class, especially working-class women; subtle but frank in its portrayal of the negation and misapprehension of Aboriginal culture.But it wasn’t only that. This was no cringy putdown. These lives were also funny and passionate, full of imagination and yearning, glimmering with the possibility of transcendence. It was a capacious, generous giant of a novel, Russian in its ambitions, Melvillian in its digressions, Marquezian in its flashes of magical realism. All this, but all ours. Of the Aussie, by the Aussie, for the Aussie.
Writers on Writers: On Tim Winton by Geraldine Brooks is published by Black Inc. in partnership with the State Library Victoria and the University of Melbourne