Cloudstreet is Australian writer Tim Winton’s fifth novel, published in 1991. Winton wrote the novel in longhand, much of it inside a cafe in Paris. One day he was traveling by bus with his wife and small child and the handwritten manuscript, typed copy and carbon copy—the only three copies of Cloudstreet in existence in the world at the time—all got left behind inside one a forgotten or overlooked bag. The only thing standing behind devastation and a future that could not possibly have ended much differently was a last minute tap on the shoulder by another passenger asking if the forgotten bag was, indeed, his.
Such is the stuff of which legends are made: the underlying thematic drive the manuscript can be boiled down to a celebration of the essential quality of how free will is shaped so strongly by the random chance of everyone around us also trying to exercise their own free will. Cloudstreet takes a story which has become almost a cliché to avoid by now: the juxtaposition of two families’ various fortunes portrayed over a sprawling timeline of multiple generations. The manner in which Winton takes his somewhat hoary premise and avoids all hint of cliché is nothing less than audacious. The two families are forced by tragic circumstances impacting them both equally to share a large house in suburban Perth. The house thus serves both as metaphor and as a means of literally controlling the narrative in ways that Winton already manages to subvert in order to avoid sitcom contrivances.
The metaphorical impact is further strengthened by the literal backdrop of actual historical events which impacts the choices of characters trying to establish identity through free will within a world of randomness ranging from JFK’s fateful trip to Dallas to the presence of real life Aussie serial killer Eric Cooke, known to locals as the Nedlands Monster.
Cloudstreet earned Winton the second of what is so far four Miles Franklin Awards, the Australian equivalent of American’s Pulitzer Prize. Over the course of the first two decades of the 21st century, Cloudstreet has nabbed the top spot on a numerous critics’ lists and readers’ polls of the greatest Australian novel ever written. Such popularity helps to explain how it has been successfully adapted into a radio drama, a TV miniseries, a stage play and, most recently, an opera.