Involving tale of before and after

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Jessie Neilson reviews Bluebottle, by Belinda Castles. Published by Allen & Unwin.

Belinda Castles is an English-born novelist who has been based in Australia for the past 20 years. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Sydney, and Bluebottle is her fourth novel. It tells of a family of five and the repercussions  that follow from the events of one particular Boxing Day. Personalities kept partially hidden, combined with misguided beliefs and a lack of straightforward communication, mean  their lives will forever be divided into before and after.

Fun-loving couple Tricia and Charlie live with their teenagers Lou and Jack and younger Phoebe in a ramshackle house atop honeycomb cliffs in the glorious Australian seaside locale of Bilgola, a suburb of Sydney. Fond of parties and socialising, they enjoy a lifestyle of surfing and swimming, where the settlement basks in the sun. However, Charlie is generally at a loose end, despite his grandiose projects. Pottering around the property he shows the family every day that bright, athletic Lou is his favourite. He is also known for his wandering eye, and while appearances portray a happy marriage, it is really a situation, according to Tricia, where she works hard to maintain the peace. Looking back, Phoebe recalls her mother as one suppressing a "well of subterranean fury".

It is Boxing Day 1994. News comes in that the school bag of missing girl Monica Kazmi has been found in the bush surrounding their home. The beloved daughter of Iranian professionals, Monica is a quiet young woman. All summer, the news of her disappearance has dominated social media, lending tension and deep uneasiness to the otherwise peaceful neighbourhood. Individuals begin to act in unpredictable ways as the uncertainty stretches on.

Bluebottle skips between this time and the present, where the family has moved on and tried to recover from those events. Some areas of their history remain mutually off bounds as they try to build their lives afresh. However, for all of them, they find that memories, like a piece of glass around one’s neck, can only be repressed until the glass shifts and cuts into the skin. Memories are then immediately triggered.

Castles presents an enthralling and ultimately grim story of circumstances out of control and the many lives affected by it. Her work is consistent and detailed, portraying how supposition, as well as erratic behaviour stemming from people’s imperfections, can set off chains of events. This is an involving and poignant read.

- Jessie Neilson is a University of Otago library assistant.

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