Who is My Neighbour?: Tim Winton’s ‘Aquifer’ and the Ghosts of Cloudstreet


The psychology of guilt as debt is a recurrent theme in Tim Winton’s fiction. A number of scholars have recently examined the theme of haunting in Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991), arguing that the ghosts which appear in the story represent an engagement with Australia’s colonial past, in particular the mistreatment of its Indigenous peoples. The latest of these, Michael R. Griffiths, highlights the shortcomings of Winton’s treatment of this theme, contending that Winton’s text might be read as a kind of excuse, in the name of naïveté, for colonial abuses. Given that Nicholas Birns (among others) has noted a new maturity in Winton’s work from The Turning (2004) onward, a fresh examination of such themes in Winton’s work is warranted. This essay does so through a reading of the short story ‘Aquifer’. Examining the story’s treatment of the psychology of guilt and debt, the essay explores how Winton tries to resolve the moral and historical problems he raises in regard to Australian culture through the ethical figure of the neighbour, drawn in particular from the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. By showing the centrality of the neighbour to Winton’s work through references to In the Winter Dark (1988), Cloudstreet, Breath (2009), ‘Aquifer,’ and a newspaper editorial by Winton on the humanitarian treatment of refugees, this paper seeks to provide a new critical window through which to understand his evolving ethical ideas about Australia’s past and future.

When the Lamb family arrive at their new home in Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991), Quick Lamb surveys the building’s façade and remarks, ‘Looks flamin haunted’ (48). Quick’s words turn out to be prophetic, for the Cloudstreet house does, indeed, contain the restless souls of two ghosts. The ghosts are a legacy of the days when the house was used as a home for young Indigenous women, an outwardly benevolent function that in reality reflects the prejudices of colonial Australia Michael R. Griffiths examines the significance of this sense of being haunted that pervades the novel, arguing that the house represents ‘a spectral logic of ownership and habitation synecdochic of settler-colonial nationhood’ in which ‘the ghosts that haunt Cloudstreet figure a history of Indigenous prior occupation, as well as colonial dispossession and its form of assimilation’ (79). Griffiths builds on similar observations by a number of other critics on this theme…

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Published 26 February 2017 in Volume 32 No. 1. Subjects: Aboriginal Australians - Literary portrayal, Ethics, Refugees & displaced persons, Tim Winton.

Cite as: Mathews, Peter. ‘Who is My Neighbour?: Tim Winton’s ‘Aquifer’ and the Ghosts of Cloudstreet.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. vol, no. 32, no, 2017, doi: 10.20314/als.79ce443cbd.