A review of The River Baptists by Belinda Castles

Reviewed by Sue Bond

The River Baptists
by Belinda Castles
Allen & Unwin, 2007. $22.95. 287 pages.

I was fortunate to be at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival, at a session featuring Belinda Castles with Malcolm Knox and Stephen Scourfield. The session was titled ‘In the crucible of family and friends’; Belinda Castles talked about her novel, The River Baptistswith reference to a daughter’s relationship to her father, and fathers in general. She had just had a baby, who was in the audience, cradled in her father’s arms.

Her recent experience of birth shows in the character of Rose Baker, a young pregnant woman who is renting a house from her sister Billie’s boyfriend. The scene of Rose giving birth reads particularly vividly: ‘Then a force hit her, seemed to separate every molecule in her body and leave her entirely rearranged.’

The novel won The Australian/Vogel Literary Award in 2006, and is certainly accomplished and beautifully written. Castles knows how to create suspense and shape character, so that the reader develops strong feelings for the inhabitants of the riverside community.

The house in which Rose is living belonged to Billie’s boyfriend’s family, the Mancinis, and is set on an island, with a grumpy old man called Tom Shepherd as a neighbour. He seems to hate almost everyone, but there are particularly strong and long-standing ill feelings between Tom and the Mancinis. Danny Raine, who runs the river taxi, is a young man with a secret, but there are lots of those. Who is the father of Rose’s baby? What lies at the heart of Tom’s hatred of the Mancini’s? Why are there so many fires in the area? What’s up with the strange young man, Kane, who is the new tenant in the boatshed next to Rose’s place?

And it is a story about fathers. Danny and Rose in particular have very strong feelings about theirs which are crucial features of the novel. Tom remembers his role as father to his daughter Molly, a traditional and distant type of fathering. His memories are shown to be tormenting, and reveal much about his state of mind.

Castles creates mood skilfully, as in the opening chapter where Danny and his father are fishing in their little boat. The blood on his father’s t-shirt from the worms and other creatures is symbolic of the man and his relationship with his family. The details of the community and the people who live there produce a sleepiness that is tinged with menace. There is much that moves under the surface of the water, occasionally bursting out to wreck havoc.

But despite the novel’s obvious strengths, I still found myself thinking that the writing was familiar: smooth, polished sentences and scenes, sensuous landscape, easy-flowing. There is not enough that is wholly original in it, that wakes up the reader, or distinguishes itself from a lot of other literary novels in Australia. I would like to see the author develop her literary thinking and create a more distinctive voice, something which can, of course, take time. But, to be fair, this is part of the process of development as a writer, and Castles has made an extremely promising start.

About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane with her partner and their large cat. She writes reviews for the Courier Mail, Metapsychology Online, Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, dotlit, Asian Review of Books and Social Alternatives. Some of her short stories have been published in Hecate, Imago, Mangrove and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing. She is working on a memoir of her adoptive life, as well as short stories and essays. Her blog is at http://geckowriting.blogspot.com