Dysfunctional family dynamics are well-worn subjects in fiction, as are the mysterious disappearances of young girls. Novels about Australians’ relationships with the sea, also, are so popular as to be their own genre. None of that matters when the characters are this heartbreaking and the language this ethereal. What a revelation is Belinda Castles’ stunning fourth novel, Bluebottle.
The story focuses on the Bright children: swimming star Louisa, 15, anxious Jack, 14, and bratty Phoebe, 10. It’s 1994 and their father, Charlie, has made a packet from real estate development while mother, Tricia, plays tennis and compulsively cleans. Castles treats Charlie with a light touch and doesn’t diagnose but there’s something not right. He’s mercurial and loving and bullying and manic at times. The rest of the family exists in his orbit, dancing and weaving to avoid his tempers and bask in his adoration. One day, he takes the family on a drive to show them a surprise. A schoolgirl friend of Jack’s has disappeared and there’s a police investigation and a cloud over the neighbourhood. The family needs a fresh start, so they’re moving; Charlie’s bought a rundown house perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea at Bilgola, on Sydney’s northern beaches.
The plot sounds slight, and it is. The story moves backwards and forwards 20 years, so we see the three grown. Castles transcends her subject matter with her insight into the way the ripples of childhood become the substance of an adult life, and she peels back the layers of behaviour and motivation until Lou, Jack and Phoebe are vulnerable before us. We see that, for adult Jack, “Waking up was no longer like the trauma of being born every day”, and that adult Lou still imagines Charlie’s voice in her head, saying, “This is what you made of yourself with all your brains?” Phoebe remembers her childhood, when she had “… once rebuilt herself friend by friend … regained her substantial self, the nugget of dark, treacly laughter at her centre”. It’s exquisitely touching and Bilgola is gorgeously described with all its moods and beauty.
The mystery of the disappearance is eventually solved, but it’s largely a McGuffin. What matters is the humanity of Castles’ people and how they imperfectly negotiate the waves of adults that buffeted their younger selves. Bluebottle is a wonderful novel and a likely turning point in Castles’ career. LS
Allen & Unwin, 256pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2018 as "Belinda Castles, Bluebottle". Subscribe here.