At a glance, Bluebottle by Belinda Castles seems straightforward – a novel about family relationships – and yet Castles has layered every element of this story with vivid detail. The result is a mesmerizing and immersive read and one that, like the title suggests, looks pretty but has a sting.
The story follows the Bright family – charismatic and temperamental Charlie; his wife, Tricia, the nervy peacemaker; and their three children, Lou, Jack and Phoebe.
There were eruptions, sometimes squalls, Charlie’s mood building and breaking and building again over several days like summer weather.
Various plot points – the move to the family’s new cliff-top fibro beach shack; the disappearance of a neighbourhood girl; and Charlie’s Boxing Day guests – provide tension, and the structure of the book – told in two distinct time periods, twenty years apart – keeps the story moving at a decent pace. But it is Castles’ descriptions of the ocean, summer heat, salty skin, swimming, the peculiarities of the beach shack, and Christmas Day politics that sang to me. On their own, the sentences are deceptively simple –
There was a house on a honeycomb cliff above the Pacific, perched over the beach in air as scrubbed and softened as old linen.
The day, endless as it felt, began to wane. The lifesavers were packing up their shelter, pulling up the flags.
A walk up the track, a warm shower, a cold drink from the fridge out on the breezy deck.
…to have that life of calm and ease, immense windows, delicious food, scouring swims that filled you with light and air.
But in total, they create a tangible image of the house, the beach and the seaside town. Perhaps it’s my decades of holidaying in a fibro shack at McCrae that made this story resonate so deeply, feel so true…
After midnight the heat swelled in the house on the cliff while the cool surf pounded below. When daylight spread across the gully, the tin roof began to shimmer and throb.
The title of the book provides a metaphor for a number of elements in the story. Most obviously, things that look okay, are not. For the Bright family, Christmas 1994 sparked a number of events that would reverberate for years afterwards. The dual time periods demonstrate that one person’s memory of an event can be quite different to another’s.
The metaphor is used more subtlety in relation to the family dynamics. Here, the idyllic beach setting belies the menacing undertone of what is happening in the house. This is given sharp focus through Charlie’s individual relationships with each family member. Jack says –
He watched his father, his back to him, the way he swelled into his performance, his free hand gesturing. Which of his stories had he unwrapped for this moment?
I always enjoy stories about family relationships and this one, with its glorious writing about things I love, is a step above.
Now she was reliant on phone boxes and buses for even a taste of that feeling he gave her, something wrong but good, like holding a battery on your tongue or the taste of gin.
A blue gin cocktail to go with the gorgeous book cover.