Monday, June 26, 2006

The best novel I read in 2005

Last fall I ran across an article by Chloƫ Schama in The New Republic titled "An Australian Writer You Should Be Reading." (The archived article is available only to subscribers at TNR's site but seems to be reprinted in its entirety here.)

Ordinarily I bristle at being told what I should do, but I read on:

Tim Winton's career comprises a veritable laundry list of literary accomplishments. He wrote his first novel, An Open Swimmer, when he was only 19 and has continued to write prolifically since. Twice nominated for the Booker Prize, in 1995 for The Riders and again in 2002 for Dirt Music, he has transcended his boy-genius label, gaining a reputation, at least in Australia, as one of the country's most compelling contemporary writers. In a poll conducted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Winton's novel Cloudstreet was named a "favorite read," trailing behind only four other books: The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird (in that order). Winton's distance from the literary scene--he lives far from the country's capital on the western coast of Australia--and his reluctance to step into the literary limelight seem to convey an appealing humility not always associated with literary wunderkinds, even in their more mature years.

Despite his accolades, Winton remains largely unknown to most American readers.

Published in 1991, Cloudstreet was certainly unknown to me until Schama's essay (even though this article claims Winton is "hugely popular in the US").

It's difficult to communicate the power and magic of the novel, but click here for a brief synopsis and a few short reviews.

In her Los Angeles Times review Carolyn See wrote:
One of the most wonderful things in the world is to see a novelist striving for greatness--not for his ego, not for his career, not because he might get a prize someday--but because he knows he has the capacity for greatness and just decides to go for it, for the sake of the work. For the reader, watching [Tim Winton] glow and spread and grow is like watching one of the Flying Wallendas, except that instead of carefully walking a literary tightrope, Winton prances along for a few steps, then takes a few more, adds a couple more chairs and sticks to his literary burden, then miraculously takes off into the air and flies--all his conceits and devices simply a great blur in the sky. He's a novelist, a great one, because against all evidence and odds, he reminds us what it is to be human, and reminds us to be proud of our humanity.
In 2003 the Australian Society of Authors asked its members to nominate between one and five of their favorite Australian books ever published: Cloudstreet topped the list. (Click here to see the complete list.)

Is there any of the Australian "cultural cringe"--discussed here, here, here, and here--evident in Cloudstreet? Not really, I think. That's partly because Winton seems genuinely uninterested in how he rates and in the book-prize industry--despite, or maybe because of, his success--but more because he's positioned at the (geographic) periphery of the Australian literature scene.

"When you come from where I do, you know when you get published you're good. When you're from the wrong hemisphere, wrong country, wrong part of the wrong country, then you know you haven't kissed any bots to get published," he said in 2002.

Click here for a brief biography of Winton and a bibliography.

--Marshal Zeringue