Bluebird by Malcolm Knox

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Bluebird is a sprawling novel set in the fictitious small town of Bluebird located just across the bay from Ocean City.  It could be anywhere but the descriptions of the town’s characters place it squarely in Australia.  Most readers would recognise – and perhaps some may even know – many of the protagonists in this brilliant new novel by Malcolm Knox.

The novel is in three parts imaginatively entitled First Part, This Part and Last Part.  Each part is introduced by a section in italics called ‘Bird’s eye’ narrated by what may be a seagull but is actually one of the characters in her role as puppet master.

Like other small towns on the east coast, Bluebird has recently been discovered by the developers and the old Bluebird is beginning to disappear building by building and life style by lifestyle.  However, Gordon Grimes and one or two others are fighting a rear-guard action to protect their idyllic way of life and to preserve something of the old Bluebird.  Gordon lives in the Lodge – itself earmarked for redevelopment – whose ownership is rather confused.  He shares the Lodge with Leonie his step-mother-in-law, Kelly his estranged wife, their sixteen-year-old son Ben, Lou his goddaughter, and a number of hangers-on who go by the names of Dog, Red Cap, Japan Ned, Tonsure Man and Firie Sam.  All the latter names clearly demonstrate the Australian predilection for nicknames.

To add to this eclectic mix are the remnants of the previous generation – the men and women who ran the town as if it were their own private fiefdom.  There is Tony Eastaugh – the one-time president of the bowls club, the chamber of commerce and more recently of the surf club where he demonstrated an interest in spying on pre-pubescent boys in the changing rooms;  there is Gordon’s father Ron Grimes now in  a nursing home but still exercising an iron control over his son and his wife Norma; and there is Leonie widow of Noel Chidgey [who made his fortune from gambling and associated activities in what is ironically called the Hilton], puppet master and step-mother of Kelly.

Each of these characters is sharply and accurately drawn and this sharpness avoids the likelihood of the reader confusing one character with another.  In addition, each character is interesting – and often engaging – in his/her own right and each contributes to the trajectory of the narrative.

But behind the skirmishes with each other and with the developers are hidden secrets and lies which in some cases – especially Gordon’s – have had consequences which could never have been foreseen at the time and now cannot be redressed.  As is often the case when secrets are finally disclosed to others, the disclosure is of no help to anyone – it simply and unfairly shares the burden with those who are blameless.  As Ben says when his father Gordon finally explains what happened to Gordon’s brother forty-two years before: ‘Now I’ve got the secret too. … What do I do with your secret?  Did you think about that? [409]

This is not by any means the only secret kept in Bluebird.  One by one, they are exposed and some have serious consequences.  As one character says ‘Bluebird whispers a history of self-concealment’ [4].  The author rather artfully devises a major event in the town which affects everyone and leads to the disclosure of these other secrets.  Finally, truths can be told and this shedding of secrets allows the key characters to take control of their futures in ways which had not occurred before.

Over and above the narrative, though, is the author’s description of the dismantling of the old culture of Bluebird without any loss of affection shown for the people individually or collectively.  The author clearly cares for Bluebird and its inhabitants – the remnants of a small town built around sun, surf and surfing.  However, there is at the same time a recognition that these towns have a ‘use-by’ date which suggests an inevitability to the events which transform Bluebird.

In its entirety, Bluebird is characterised by sharply-observed interactions and descriptions of the relationships between the characters; and particularly of the interactions between Gordon and his parents – either together or separately.   Their interactions show how the influence and control parents have of their children does not stop when the children become adults.  The task of the child [now an adult] is to break that control without breaking the relationship – quite a task – and one which almost exceeds Gordon’s capacity.  The resolution of this is a pleasure to read.

Malcolm Knox is an acclaimed writer, novelist and journalist who has won – among others – the Ned Kelly Award, Human Rights Commission Award, and Walkley Awards for Investigative Journalism, Magazine Writing and Sports Reporting.  Bluebird is his sixth novel and follows The Wonder Lover [2016].

Bluebird

[2020]

by Malcolm Knox

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76087 742 2

$32.99; 485pp

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