All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Bluebottle by Belinda Castles

on February 14, 2019

Belinda Castles
Allen & Unwin
2018, 247p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

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…

Just last week, the Stella Prize Longlist was announced, which is an award for a work written by an Australian female author. Originally created after a slew of men won the Miles Franklin, a prestigious literary prize, it shines a light on work by women. The last two years I haven’t done a lot in regards to the list, just reading 1-2 titles but this year I decided to give the longlist the best crack that I could. I’d already read one, Chloe Hooper’s excellent The Arsonist: A Mind On Fire and my local library was able to help me out with 8 more. There are a couple of titles they don’t have so I probably won’t be able to read everything but I’m going to go as close as I can.

This is the first of the titles I picked up from the library, a story of a family of five who move to a clifftop house overlooking one of Sydney’s northern beaches in the mid-1990s. Dad Charlie has bought the house on a whim, dragging his wife and three children there to see it as a ‘surprise’. It’s a prime location, perched right on the edge almost, of the cliff. It’s an older house, complete with horrific shaggy carpet and a green formica kitchen but Charlie, flush from a property deal, has grand plans.

Charlie and Tricia have three kids – Lou, 15 and a promising swimmer who will benefit from the proximity of the ocean pool, Jack, less than a year younger than Lou and Phoebe, who is around 7 or 8. Lou is Charlie’s golden girl, talented swimmer, lean and blonde. Jack is mostly the recipient of Charlie’s disdain. He’s not particularly athletic, he seems to have anxiety (probably mostly brought on by Charlie himself) and doesn’t fit the mould of Charlie’s ideal son. The two older children recognise that their father is prone to some pretty severe mood swings. When Charlie is happy, when he’s busy with plans and dreams, the world can be a good place.

But Charlie isn’t always happy. Sometimes from a look or a word, the children know that things are going to go very different that day. Charlie is unpredictable and often irrational and they try as best they can to manage him out of these moments. Sometimes they are successful, sometimes they are not. Lou levels her mother with plenty of questions as to why this is the way it has to be, wishing her mother to take a more active role, but Tricia seems to prefer to pass off the management of Charlie to the older two, staying in the kitchen preparing meals and keeping up the facade. Her passiveness in the face of Charlie’s increasingly unstable behaviour is a real source of anger for Lou, who I think wants more from her mother in terms of help for them, rather than just them being left to deal with it, or smooth it over. Presumably Tricia has been dealing with it in her own way for over a decade now, so perhaps she’s figured out the easiest way, even if it is the one that seems to place most of the pressure on her kids.

Before they moved, a young girl who went to school with Jack went missing. As Charlie’s behaviour becomes increasingly more troubling, Lou becomes more concerned that Charlie’s obsession and inappropriate actions around it mean that he’s hiding something terrible. It’s hard to get a straight answer out of anyone and twenty years into the future, the family are still feeling the after effects.

It’s clear well into the future, with the children mostly in their 30s, that they are still very much shaped by what happened during that time after they moved into the clifftop house. Charlie’s moods and whims are what ruled their days and even in the future without that hanging over them, it still seems like they are still feeling that control. I’m not sure if Charlie displayed signs of a mental illness? He seems certainly manic at some stages, although if there were depressive stages, they were off page. There were mentions of how he got without work though, without something to stimulate and entertain him. Charlie was very fickle, flitting from one idea to the next, involving people with enthusiasm only to abandon it later. He buys the house without consulting his wife or considering her thoughts and feelings on the move and has all of these grand plans which amount to little more than a few lines scribbled on paper. Charlie is an interesting character, seen mostly through the eyes of his children who have varying feelings on him. Jack is particularly affected by Charlie’s ‘parenting’ which seems to be of the ‘toughen him up’ variety when directed at Jack.

I enjoyed the back and forth telling of this, with split narratives from the 90s and then 20 years later. It’s drawn out very well – this isn’t a long novel so the pacing is well done and it doesn’t feel either too frenetic or too slow to move. This is wonderfully atmospheric and really showcases that northern beaches lifestyle but seen through the lens of a less than perfect family trying to live that perfect life.


Book #29 of 2019

Bluebottle is the 11th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019



2 responses to “Review: Bluebottle by Belinda Castles

  1. Oh, I loved this. I had the joy of working with Belinda as my editor on House for all Seasons and Simmering Season. She’s very talented.

  2. […] Bluebottle by Belinda Castles. My review. […]

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