About the Book:
With sea-salt authenticity, Belinda Castles sets the Bright family in the sprawling paradise of Bilgola Beach. But darkness is found both in the iconic setting as well as in the disturbing behaviour of one of the family.
As he tilted the blinds she saw her mother in her tennis whites, standing at the kitchen bench, staring out into the dark bushland that bordered their houses. That was what Tricia did these days, looked into the bush as though it would attack one of them.
On a sweltering day in a cliff-top beach shack, Jack and Lou Bright grow suspicious about the behaviour of their charismatic, unpredictable father, Charlie. A girl they know has disappeared, and as the day unfolds, Jack’s eruptions of panic, Lou’s sultry rebellions and their little sister Phoebe’s attention-seeking push the family towards revelation. Twenty years later, the Bright children have remained close to the cliff edges, russet sand and moody ocean of their childhood. Behind the beautiful surfaces of their daily lives lies the difficult landscape of their past, always threatening to break through. And then, one night in late summer, they return to the house on the cliff… Gripping and evocative, Bluebottle is a story of a family bound by an inescapable past, from the award-winning author of The River Baptists and Hannah and Emil.
It’s probably best if I just state up front that I loved Bluebottle. That way you’ll be prepared for all of the praise I’m about to heap on it and the quotes that I absolutely have to include because they demonstrate the utter perfection of this novel. Belinda Castles is a word master, she just has that magic ability to string words together in a way that results in a symphony of narration that is precise and intuitive.
“She raised a hand when she said hello, even if she was right in front of you. A big unguarded smile and then she dipped her gaze, left you with that little wave, like an apology for being too much, as though she knew when people looked at him for too long he felt a hundred tiny punctures in the skin along his shoulders and he didn’t know what would come next.”
Bluebottle is a story about siblings. It’s a reminder of how within any family, each sibling will have an individual response to their parents. No one person, even within the same family, shares the exact same childhood, and each sibling will have different memories, even about the same event.
“If she wanted to know something, or just to speak, just to remember, one of them would steer her gently and the gruffly away, as though she were a child drawn repeatedly to the dark path, where the den lies, with its needles and its scraps of clothing.”
Bluebottle is a dual timeframe narrative, split between the present and Boxing Day twenty years previous. Perspectives are offered from each of the three Bright siblings, Lou, Jack, and Phoebe, within both eras. Each of them are in their thirties within the present day and they all still live in the beach area that their father relocated the family to twenty years ago. When the last house they lived in as a family comes up for sale, Lou sees this as an opportunity to revisit the past. We are then taken back to that fateful Boxing Day that changed so much for each of them.
I still haven’t put my finger on whether or not Charlie Bright was a narcissist or just a dickhead. He was probably a combination of both. Moody, strange, intensely exuberant, self-absorbed, and harshly critical – the list could go on. It all adds up to the same thing though: a toxic person, and his family had perfected the art of walking on eggshells around him.
“What wears me out, he thought, is having to check he’s okay every time you enter a room. It’s the way the air crackles around him and you don’t know whether to keep a lookout of hide. And really, it makes no difference, because whatever’s going to happen is going to happen anyway, and the worry makes it worse, like it can be seen, a colour in the room that he seeks out.”
I felt such immense sympathy for each of the siblings as well as their mother, although Jack tugged on my heartstrings the hardest. Lou judged her mother quite severely for ‘putting up with him’, but with an adult’s hindsight, I could see that it was not so straightforward and reading between the lines highlighted just how much of his toxicity Tricia absorbed as a means of deflecting it from her children. And yet, her apparent passivity fostered an ‘us against them’ mentality that often left her children floundering. Charlie was a man who could be dangerous if you crossed him. He needed careful management, that much was apparent. He was the type of person who could either bring the good times or bring the bad, with nothing in between. He was like an undetonated bomb and the tension he brought to his family leaped up off the page. He is the burden that some children bear, the toxic parent that can’t be contained. There will no doubt be many readers who will be able to relate on some level to the fine line the Bright children needed to walk each day.
The relationship between the siblings was authentically rendered. Despite getting on each other’s nerves a hundred times a day, there was a reliance on each other that aided in absorbing and deflecting each of Charlie’s barbs. Lou was the favourite, so her experience was tempered by Charlie’s adoration. Jack was the son who didn’t quite measure up, so his experience of Charlie was vastly different to Lou’s. Phoebe was the baby of the family, and possibly the one who experienced the most upheaval from Charlie, because depending on his mood, he could take her or leave her, so she never really knew if she was up or down. While each of them grappled and competed for what they needed most, be it affirmation from Charlie or to simply not be noticed at all, they still read the signs as one and protected each other as best as they could.
“Warm fingers take hold of his arms, there is a hand on each one, pulling him upwards. He finds the sky, the cliff, the beach, and that his sisters are here, on either side of him, lifting him up, setting him on his feet, where he is able to let the water out of him and breathe the good, clear air above the wash.”
The tension wrought throughout Bluebottle is mirrored by the conditions of the Boxing Day that is front and centre within this novel. A day that begins with a blazing heat that simmers and burns until it all builds into a storm that unleashes its fury seemingly from out of nowhere. Charlie’s imprint is left firmly upon each of his children, but the lasting impression differs between them. I loved that this was a story predominantly about siblings, a relationship that is often explored within novels as a secondary story rather than the primary. Belinda Castles has given us a novel that demonstrates perfect pacing and the art of knowing when less is more. The beauty of her narration secures her place as one of my favourite Australian authors.
“That’s what he had absorbed for her, enough time dragging this awful weight behind him for her to be able to love him still.”
Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of Bluebottle for review.
About the Author:
Belinda Castles won the Australian/Vogel’s literary award for The River Baptists in 2006 and was one of the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Best Young Novelists for 2008. Her next novel, Hannah & Emil, won the Asher Literary Award for 2012-13. She has recently returned from teaching in the UK and is currently a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Sydney. Belinda lives with her husband and daughters on the Northern Beaches of Sydney.
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