It is Christmas Day 1994 at Bilgoa Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches. A “pink shouldered” Charlie Bright is pacing up and down on the sand at the water’s edge, “like a coach on the touchline”, calling out to his teenage children Lou and Jack, and their little sister Phoebe, who are mastering their sleek new surfboards on the waves.
It is the Brights’ first Christmas at Bilgoa. That spring, Charlie had driven the children and his wife Tricia to an “ugly” cliff-top house, which looked “ready to join the rocks at the base of the cliff”. He announced that it would be their new home. “A fresh start. That’s what this family needs,” Charlie had explained.
However, on Boxing Day, Charlie was upset by a report in the newspaper on a missing teenage girl, Monica, whom the Brights knew at their old home. Charlie’s mood darkens during the day. He snaps at the children and flirts with the young girlfriend of a former business associate, Don. Lou is disgusted and tells Jack she thinks their father had something to do with Monica’s disappearance. And then little Phoebe takes a compromising photo of their mother and Don.
Belinda Castles then switches Bluebottle from the spiralling tension of Boxing Day to twenty years later. The adult Bright siblings are still living on the northern beaches. Lou is now a successful real estate agent, Jack is a struggling artist, and Phoebe is a professional photographer. Their mother, Tricia, also lives nearby. Charlie is spoken of in past tense, though the nature of his departure from the family is left hanging, like a loose thread.
Castles lays clues as to Charlie’s fate and the impact on the family in Lou, Jack and Phoebe’s present-day personal stories. She deftly shifts the novel back and forth between the present and past to gradually reveal more about the deepening dysfunction in their family, and to delve into the aftereffects of that distant Boxing Day.
When the adult Lou is offered the sale of the Bright’s old cliff-top house and is given the key for an inspection, Phoebe decides that it is time to pull hard at the family’s loose thread. She organises a clandestine evening at the vacant Bilgoa house with Lou, Jack and Tricia, hoping to learn more about Charlie.
Castles has written a beautiful book. Her flowing narrative, well-crafted characters and underlying dark suspense had me hooked until the last page. Castles’ stated aim in writing Bluebottle was to explore the childhood memories that shape us as adults—“that what we did then, what happened to us, wasn’t practice but defining, enduringly significant.”
Some books are page-turners—I found Bluebottle to be more than that. I would beat my alarm in the morning and reach for the book for the joy of another chapter before getting up to start the day. And so I would thoroughly recommend reading it.
Robert Fairhead is a middle-aged dad and dog owner. He is an editor and writer at TallAndTrue.com and blogs on RobertFairhead.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tallandtrue.