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Malcolm Knox, Bluebird (#BookReview)

June 26, 2021

Malcolm Knox’s sixth novel, Bluebird, comes with some impressive endorsements. On the front cover is “Charlotte Wood, author of The weekend“, while the back features “Christos Tsiolkas, author of Damascus and The slap” and “Adam Gilchrist, former test cricketer and beach-goer”. Hang on, Adam Gilchrist? What the?

Some of you will know why, but I didn’t. However, I now know that as well as being a novelist, Knox is a respected journalist who has been a cricket correspondent, sport editor, and literary editor. Wikipedia reminded me that he was the literary editor who exposed “the fake Jordanian memoirist, Norma Khouri“. This won him and co-journalist, Carolyn Overington, a Walkley Award for Investigative Journalism.

The thing is, I knew Malcolm Knox’s name, but had read none of his novels or his many works of non-fiction. Consequently, I came to Bluebird cold. I have no idea whether it is typical of Knox’s writing, but, I did enjoy it.

Superficially, it looks like a satire on all those beach communities that pepper Australia’s coasts – the middle-aged men who prefer surfing to working, the country-club set, the councils which sell out to developers, small-town racism and gay-bashing, and so on. You can imagine it, I’m sure. Except that, in fact, it soon becomes clear that while a beach-town might be the setting, Bluebird’s satire is broader, reaching into wider aspects of contemporary Australian life – dysfunctional men and broken families, development, aged care, banking, local government, the list goes on. It’s more that given Australians’ love for the beach, such a town makes the perfect, relatable, setting for his tale.

However, satire can sometime be an intellectual exercise, engaging the mind more than the heart, but Knox achieves both, by creating flawed characters whom we recognise and can engage with, and by telling a story that is just that bit larger than life to make it exciting but not so much that it doesn’t feel real. At first, I was concerned that it was just a little bit too smart-alecky for me, that there were just a few too many biting lines, but I found myself drawn in because I cared about the seemingly hapless 50-year-old Gordon and (some of) his family and friends.

How did they get away with it?

The novel is told in four parts – First Part, Next Part, This Part and Last Part – with each introduced in an italicised section by “Bird’s eye”, a not quite disinterested truth-teller. The story concerns the recently unemployed, recently separated Gordon, and his attempts to keep Bluebird’s iconic house, The Lodge, intact. The Lodge, however, is more than a house; it’s a symbol of all that is both good and rotten in Bluebird, in Gordon’s family, in, I think we could say, Australia. It is a paradox. Bird’s eye, introducing First Part, says:

This house is not an answer but a question: absolute beachfront yet virtually inaccessible, sitting on premium real estate that is somehow not real estate at all, a historic abuse protected by custom.

And the question is, how did they get away with it, or, more pointedly, as Bird’s eye asks, what have they got away with, to, even more pointedly, will they keep getting away with it.

So, through Gordon, the novel explores how its characters (and, dare I say, Australians) have managed to maintain the good life. Gordon lives in his beloved Lodge, sharing the bunk room with his teenage son Ben, who has some sort of “Asperger-ish ADHD-sih, non-specific, nameless disorder-is Thing”, and his goddaughter Lou, who is, arguably, the most competent character in the novel. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Kelly, is also there, occupying the “queen room”. His many unemployed, or minimally employed, friends also hang around the Lodge – unless, that is, there is a surf. And, he has elderly parents, irascible father Ron, who is living, unwillingly, in aged care due to having terminal kidney failure, and mother Norma, “a model for pressing forward without an inward glance”. But, the centre of it all is Gordon, and he is floundering. He has no money, and is marooned by a secret concerning his brother’s death over 40 years ago. The problem is that he is likeable, “a good man” in fact, and people want to help him, even at risk to themselves.

And, of course, there are the bullies – including his soon-to-be ex-step-mother-in-law Leonie who pulls the family financial strings for her own purposes, Council heavy Frontal, and “big man” about town, Tony Eastaugh. None of these want to help Gordon save The Lodge, and thus Bluebird itself.

It’s a complicated story of financial skulduggery set against personal insecurities, jealousies, and just plain ineffectuality, but the novel holds together largely because of its language and humour, Knox’s ability to skewer Australian culture, and his insight into human nature. I loved for example his comment on Gordon and Kelly’s marriage:

Habit, over-familiarity, neglect and inaction killed more lives than cancer.

Change is what I’m ready for (Gordon)

Marriage, however, is not his main target. Rather, it’s Australian men and the way they are letting the side down. Bluebird’s men tend to be ambitious power-hungry bullies or ineffectual past-focused also-rans. There are few in the middle. Overall, it’s the women who are decisive, which is not to say that they are all “better” people. Knox’s attitude to most of his characters seems to be one of frustrated affection. These people, he seems to be saying, are hanging onto the past, but

The past was worn out, not as solid as it was made out to be. Past its best.

The ending, when it comes, is cataclysmic, but not hopeless. Knox wants us to believe that people – that Australia, which seems also to be wallowing in its past – can change. It’s not that the past is all bad, but it shouldn’t drive us.

Introducing the Last Part, Bird’s eye says

This is not the outsider’s story. This is the story of those who are in the middle yet on the margin, the hole in the doughnut, so close to the centre that they have fallen into the void.

The question is, can we get ourselves out? Bluebird is a warm and funny but also biting read. Recommended.

This review is featured by Twinkl in their blog about the latest must-read books. See more recommendations and get involved at Book Lovers’ Top Picks For Your 2021 TBR List.

Malcolm Knox
Bluebird
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2020
487pp.
ISBN: 9781760877422

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

25 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2021 06:04

    I knew Malcolm ! He and I were both working for a time for what was then the Australian Caption Centre in Sydney, He was delightful, and, I can only think, still is. Little did I know he was going to be famous: or I would’ve brown-nosed like anything ! [grin]
    This novel certainly tells me he is very clever. He must also be a student of society.
    Goodonim !

    • June 27, 2021 09:00

      Oh how lovely, MR. He is absolutely a student of society. So astute about people and what’s going on in Australia. And I can imagine he’s delightful because this is biting but not bitter.

      I remember the Australian Caption Centre from when I wanted to acquire films for hearing impaired people. Anyhow, this is one for you to look out for on audiobook, I reckon.

      • June 27, 2021 11:25

        Or probably any of ’em ! – thanks, ST !

        • June 27, 2021 16:09

          Yes, probably, from the sound of it M-R. Let me know if you do “read” any.

  2. June 27, 2021 11:24

    I have a copy of this in my TBR but the size has been putting me off — it’s so hefty. But it sounds intriguing from your review and I’m sure there’s a lot that would resonate with me… I love Australians but returning after so long away I find myself being very critical of a certain kind of arrogance combined with naivety/ignorance that I see in so many people. I’m reading Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe at the moment and I am underlining passages where his characters make the same kind of observations.

    • June 27, 2021 16:19

      It’s interesting being away and coming back isn’t it kimbofo? I’ve only had two and three year stints away, and quite a long time ago, but it was still fascinating. However, I’d say that some of what you are seeing/thinking is what Knox is saying. It’s subtle in that you can just think it’s about little beach communities, but it doesn’t take much to see it as being about Australia more generally – our apathy and willingness to live on past successes without seeing that the world has changed.

      I must say, though, that you can probably accuse many cultures of being ignorant in the sense of seeing the world from their own POV – the Brits and Brexit, the US and its support of Trump in particular, and so on. We probably aren’t different generally, but our particulars are different?

      • June 27, 2021 17:19

        Yes, that’s true. Don’t get me started on the whole Brexit thing! But I do think Australians have lived a very sheltered existence thanks to economic prosperity. I was trying to explain austerity to a colleague the other day having lived through 10+ years of it in the UK and they had NO IDEA what I was talking about 🤷🏻‍♀️

        • June 27, 2021 18:49

          Yes, I agree, we have that!

        • June 27, 2021 21:53

          Oh yes, absolutely, some Australians have *no* idea. I used to listen to “someone I knew well” talking about how hard WW2 rationing was here in Australia, and I would almost bite off my tongue in frustration at her belief that there was any equivalence with British rationing which went on long after WW2 ended and was still in place for some things even when I was born.

        • June 27, 2021 22:03

          A fault of our history education, I guess, Lisa?

        • June 27, 2021 23:47

          Well, maybe, but I’m talking about someone who lived through it. And really thought she’d been hard done by.

        • June 28, 2021 08:08

          It’s all comparative I suppose. Still Mum and Dad lived through it here and while they mentioned what it was like I don’t recollect them complaining. They did know how much worse the English had it. And they didn’t really have English relatives, with all their families having come to Australia in the 19thCentury or even the 18th, so I think they read and listened to the news!

        • June 28, 2021 15:33

          Plus, your parents didn’t ever strike me as being the sort of people who wanted to be victims and nourished a sense of grievance so that they had something to complain about! And while I never knew them, I know they raised a daughter who looks beyond the immediate to have a world view and a sense of perspective about Australia’s relative good fortune in so many ways.

        • June 28, 2021 20:53

          No, you’re right, Lisa, they weren’t. And, as for their raising me, I hope they did achieve that!

  3. ELIZABETH R permalink
    June 27, 2021 11:43

    I love your review! I read this novel a couple of months ago and was really impressed. The character development is outstanding.
    As a claim to fame I went to the same primary school as Malcolm Knox and our mums played golf together. I sensed great warmth and affinity with the description in this novel of the golf club ladies – very funny, well-observed stuff.
    I also love how you have stepped back to expand the analogy to Australia, and the state we’re in. Malcolm Knox is a writer at the top of his game.

    • June 27, 2021 16:24

      Oh thanks Elizabeth. How interesting to have two commenters with personal connections. There was so much in this novel to comment on that I really struggled with writing this post – go general, as I pretty much did in the end, or share specifics, as I’d love to have done, like the golf (as you say), or the little jokes about adult education, or the aged care insights, and so on. So real.

      I’m really glad you like my suggestion about expanding the analogy to Australia. I was a bit nervous about doing that, but I really think it is there.

  4. June 27, 2021 16:32

    I don’t know any middle-aged men who are happy to surf rather than work (Tim Winton?), maybe its a Byron Bay thing, we all work like mad over here. But I certainly think many of them (of us) are pretty smug about being Australian. Though none so smug as New South we don’t do lockdowns Wales.
    To go along with what you say about the book – small business would fall apart without the smart, older underpaid woman running the office and the same is observably true of many marriages (not least my own, until they got sick of it).

    • June 27, 2021 19:06

      I’m not sure I do either, Bill, but then, I live inland and have no interest in the beach or the surf, but Knox lives in a beach town I believe, and I do know people for whom surfing seems essential to their being. However, I read it as being partly to represent a certain laissez-faire attitude amongst Australians, coupled with a lack of awareness that Rome will burn if we don’t do something.

      Fair point about women. Knox doesn’t quite go that far with all his women, but there is certainly a sense that they are more pro-active.

  5. June 27, 2021 17:27

    Having lived in several coastal NSW towns, I’m very keen to read Bluebird. Where I lived the most ambitious business owners did deals with each other on the golf course, their wives maintained their social positions on the tennis courts on weekday mornings and their children attended the Catholic school, not because they were religious but because that was the school where their children would make the ‘right’ friends. I knew some middle-aged men who didn’t work, but most of the surfers I knew worked as tradies, either in their own business or for someone else. There were certainly plenty of ‘isms’ around town, though and I couldn’t agree more with Wadholloway’s comment that the smart, older women who ran things were underpaid except to say that so were the smart, younger women.

    • June 27, 2021 19:10

      This is clearly one, then, for your Australian project Rose. I’d be interested to see how you find it.

      Love your addition to Bill’s comment about women!

  6. June 28, 2021 17:17

    I have been meaning to read this for the longest time. Terrific review, Sue. Thanks.

  7. buriedinprint permalink
    July 1, 2021 08:53

    This sounds so sharp. And what a colourful cover! So far, no sign of it over here, but give it that near-year and it might yet show up.

    • July 1, 2021 09:36

      Sharp is a good word, Buried. I’ve seen at least one person suggest it as a GAN. I wouldn’t go that far – it’s a little too limited in scope in some areas – but it’s a pointed read.

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