“Will you look at us by the river… Yachts run before an unfelt gust with bagnecked pelicans riding above them, the city their twitching backdrop, all blocks and points of mirror light down to the water’s edge,” writes Tim Winton in the opening page of cloudstreet (yes, all lowercase), his epic saga about two families who share a dilapidated Australian mansion just after World War II.

I don’t use the word epic lightly. The book is more than 400 pages of ten point font, but you’ll wish it was longer. You’ll read passages like, “he never got bored with landmarks, the swirls of tideturned sand, armadas of jellyfish, the smell of barnacles and weed, the way the pelicans baulked and hovered like great baggy clowns… From the river you could be in the city but not on or of it. You could be back from it out there on the water and see everything go by you, around you, leaving you untouched.”

Composed of hundreds of short interwoven stories of the Pickles and Lamb families, the book has a definite narrative. Cloudstreet is divided into long numbered sections, though I hesitate to call them chapters because they feel more like a photo album, whose pictures, slightly unglued, overlap and refuse to stand in any orderly fashion, other than to be chronological.

The story is reveals itself in the best way of showing and not telling. The language is solid, you won’t grasp for meaning, but at the same time it can be beautiful. Nuggets like, “the dark water moves by like the black glass of a dream’s beginning,” stand with more basic language.

To be clear cloudstreet is not a boat book, but it dips its literary toes in the water. It is as it should be – with life touching water. We don’t live in the water, but the characters escape there to gather sustenance or to clear their heads… “it took his mind off the confusion of tide and flow and how hard the water felt against the oars, how it was like rowing in gravel all of a moment.”

I’ve read many of Winton’s books- they vary in quality, but this one is a masterpiece. Like a river, it winds and pauses, surges forward, and engages me with practicality, honesty, and wonder.

(Thanks to Joey R. for the gift of this book!)