Knox, Malcolm. Bluebird. Allen & Unwin, 2020. RRP $32.99. 496pp. ISBN: 9781760877422
There’s much to be said for a novel that has you nostalgic for a time and place that you’ve never even belonged to. Malcolm Knox’s Bluebird is one such book; the story inside is just as stunning as the cover that graces it. Don’t let the length fool you; this epic tale of a family and community, place and belonging is a page-turner that will have you telling everyone to go away until you’ve finished it.
As epic as Bluebird may be, it is not the drama in this novel that defines the narrative. Instead it is the Bluebird community and the vibrant, eccentric and funny characters within it. The fictional beachside community of Bluebird is a character in itself, one that acts as a catalyst for much of the exploration of place and belonging that defines this novel.
Gordon Grimes is a lacklustre ex-local newspaper editor living in The Lodge; a past-its-prime stalwart of the Bluebird community—much like Gordon himself. He lives with his wife, Kelly, whose adulterous fling with one of Gordon’s mates means they’re sort-of-not-really together. Their son Ben and Gordon’s god-daughter Lou make up the actual residents of The Lodge, but the constant comings and goings of numerous members of the Bluebird community means this battered dwelling is centre stage for Knox’s tale of this small, coastal town.
The community of Bluebird is introduced as traditional, insular and reluctant to change. The people cling to their idealised version of ‘local’ more fervently than the residents of The League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vaisey. One of the first descriptions of Bluebird defines this place as one where outsiders are blatantly rejected.
A public plebiscite (participation rate <20 percent), given three alternatives settled on a new slogan: Bluebird. Like no other. The popular favourite—Car Park Full—was not among the options.
Within hours of the sign’s erection, guerrilla graffitists vandalised, or corrected, it to Bluebird. LikeS No OtherS.’ (4)
Belonging in Bluebird is characterised by the community’s staunch physical and symbolic boundaries. Few enter, and even fewer leave.
Gordon Grimes a symbol of the community’s sense of place and belonging. His refusal to confront his wife’s indiscretion with his once-best friend Dog shows his inability to deal with current problems and past trauma. His attempt to keep The Lodge as it is symbolises his desperate need to stay in the past, an idyll that both he and others in the Bluebird community have constructed.
Gordon tromped upstairs to reclaim his house from their clubhouse. At the top of the stairs, he took the bannister newel from his pocket and screwed it back into place, but could tell, from the lack of resistance, that he had lost the thread. (37)
This description sums Gordon up perfectly. The fact that he meets ‘no resistance’ when trying to fix something that is broken symbolises the ease with which he could deal with his past issues, if only he would face them. That he has ‘lost the thread’ implies that the world is unravelling around him. He is being led astray by the demands and desires of the rest of the community. Things happen to him, he does not make things happen.
Over time The Lodge has become an unofficial community centre for the locals, who stash their surfboards, come up for coffee and use the facilities while Gordon stands by, seemingly powerless to stop them. This sense of the place belonging to everyone, regardless of who is on the title deed, epitomises this sense of shared history within the Bluebird community.
From the inside looking out, possession was nine-tenths of the law and eleven-tenths of fuck-you. For Gordon, The Lodge was a monument to the glorious and improbable reign of nothing; a manifestation of the human will to resist change, a temple dedicated to miracles within miracles. (12)
The Lodge is the community; one that is falling apart under the weight of the people within it and their long-held ideals that are becoming increasingly irrelevant as the world moves on around them.
Ironically, the majority owner of The Lodge, Leonie, is an outsider, and though she is only seen through the eyes of the other characters, the presence of her voice at the start of each section shows this gradual chipping away of the insular nature of the community. Leonie is the often-disembodied voice of progression and development, which threatens the sense of place and belonging that Gordon and the Bluebird community cling so tightly to.
[Kelly] caught sight of Leonie in a yellow shell jacket with red trousers. You could stick her in the sand and order the board riders to stay south. She was twittering to Paulo with eye-hurting brightness. (273)
Leonie is heard but she is never there in the action. She is a step-mother and the second wife of one of the Bluebird community’s most iconic members. Leonie is someone who threatened the continuation of life as it is, and thus the Bluebird community’s fundamental understanding of who they are.
There’s much to be said about this novel, about Knox’s witty, sparkling dialogue, pacey narrative and evocative writing. There’s not enough space to detail it all here. This is a book about about humanity’s obsession with the past, of family relationships, drama and unrelenting nostalgia for times that were perceived as a golden age. It is a tale of place, belonging, and of the inherent desire to protect our past and all that we consider precious.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.