Although I’ve read quite a few books lately by Australian authors – most set in outback or rural Oz – there was something quintessentially Australian about this novel by Belinda Castles. I suspect the sense of place she offers via the beachside setting combined with the purposely lazy and languid language has something to do with that.
The novel perhaps didn’t (ultimately) quite get to where I would have liked, but – for a range of reasons – resonated strongly.
by Belinda Castles
Published by Allen & Unwin
on June 1st 2018
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
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...
The book unfolds in two timeframes (1994 and now-ish) through the eyes of the three children: Jack, Louisa and Phoebe. Their family is relatively progressive – the older kids call their parents by their first names and are pretty autonomous. Ultimately however… they are just kids (Jack and Lou are 15-16ish in 1994 and Phoebe 10).
Interestingly the time we spend with them is actually very brief: Christmas Day and Boxing Day in 1994; and just a few days two decades later.
Charlie has uprooted the family (sometime not long before we meet them in 1994) and they’ve moved to an old house atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. He’s planning on knocking the house down and building something impressive. He’s obviously an architect or property developer and we get a sense he’s done well for himself financially, though was perhaps forced out of his previous world, or at least chose to leave before he was pushed.
He’s enigmatic – larger than life….
We can’t complain can we? This is your father. When it’s good, it’s great. p 48
He’s also highly unpredictable. There’s a strong sense of tension (rather than menace) and Castles does a good job of portraying that. I’m not sure there’d be a physiological / neurological reason for his ‘moods’. He could be bipolar I guess. I’m not sure and that really doesn’t matter, it’s about the impact he has on those around him.
There were eruptions, sometimes, squalls, Charlie’s mood building and breaking and building again over several days like summer weather. If some well-meaning adult had asked, what is it he does, Jack would have found it difficult to explain. He had never hit anyone, even shouting was rare. He developed grudges and watched you so carefully you felt you couldn’t cross the room without it drawing comment….
Most disconcerting were the eruptions of playfulness, seeing who could jump the furtherest off the boat, racing them along footpaths filled with shoppers, Tricia unable to watch, Jack left panting and trembling.
The squalls passed and you could still be hopeful in the long blue stretches in between. You could believe that everything would be alright because life was good, most of the time. pp 182-83
I won’t say much about this as it’s not ‘my’ story to tell, but my own father was a bit like Charlie. I was 16 when I became conscious of my role (and responsibility) in managing his moods. He was never violent (or even aggressive) and he loved my mother, brother and I more than life itself…. but he could be challenging sometimes. Yet I loved him. Despite all of that.
We don’t exactly experience Charlie in all of his ire but we’re exposed to some of his eccentricities and his wife and kids’ awareness and monitoring of his moods is palpable and very well written.
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 or 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. pp 92-93
Of course hovering in the background (in 1994) is the disappearance of girl from their old neighbourhood – from before their move. It’s something which preoccupies each of the family members in a different way.
I understand Castles’ reason for flipping forward to the point the family is at now. It’s all about that house on the cliff and the memories it holds…. the role that time played in their lives, but it felt like a chunk was missing from the story and I didn’t quite catch up. In the ‘present’ we get some backstory on how the family members arrived at where they are so I’m not sure if it’s because the crisis / reveal when it comes, is a little anticlimactic or whether I’d missed so much of their lives.
Having said all of that, this is a beautifully written and poignant book. My childhood fell a couple of decades before that of Jack, Lou and Phoebe but I could get a sense of those times…. the days at the beach, Phoebe talks about the temptation to jump on bluebottles and I remember doing exactly that (to pop them) as a kid.
“How could anything dead hurt you?” she wonders. How indeed….
Bluebottle by Belinda Castles was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.