Alison Booth – Bellevue

Red Door (Ember Press UK), 2023
Cover design by Clare Connie Shepherd)

Alison Booth’s Bellevue is at once a personal and domestic drama and an incisive social commentary on its temporal and geographical settings, the New South Wales Blue Mountains in the 1970s. It is a mystery, a crime novel of sorts, a story of loss and the finding of renewed hope and happiness through community connection.

Barbie speaks to Alison Booth about Bellevue

The lead is recently widowed Clare Barclay, who inherits the Blue Mountains property Bellevue from her late husband’s Aunt Hilda.

Clare is reeling from the loss of her husband in a shooting accident but she also discovers that he has left her in such debt that their family home is lost. Bellevue has been a sanctuary in the past and becomes one again as she tries to nurse her wounds, renovating the property and gardens whilst quietly investigating the mysterious events surrounding her husband’s last days and the financial debacle he’s created.

In the Blue Mountains community, Clare finds a small group of like-minded souls, particularly in the librarian and members of the conservation society. When Bellevue and other properties come under threat from developers, they band together in true 70s-style to launch a protest movement.

Here we see the history of this movement including actions by powerful unions of the time against government policies. Clare’s teaching and writing skills prove useful to the protest movement and she finds some of her old self and confidence returning.

With the all too familiar pairing of shonky real estate and corrupt politicians bubbling along in the understory, the author cleverly creates a tale which is both a finding of self and a pacy thriller.

As Clare learns disturbing facts about her husband’s financial dealings and contends with the daily challenges of her new life, she also uncovers the extent of some of the crimes committed to her detriment. Again, the bells of the seventies ring loudly here.

The author has created a pleasing cast of characters in her mountains community, most of them recognisable to those of us old enough to remember the seventies. In doing so, she presents a (for me nostalgic) picture of the times – the conservationists, the not so well off, the eccentric and artistic, those seeking the cheaper housing of out of Sydney places, the migrants and refugees old and new, the extremely wealthy with weekend properties and grand mansions.

And then there is the delightful young lad Joe, who becomes Clare’s valued friend and ally. Joe’s disadvantaged homelife is clear, but it is his plucky spirit and artistic talent that shine most brightly. His point of view provides another voice in the story with his ten-year old’s observations and boyish actions. His friendship with Clare develops cautiously but becomes a vehicle for change for the better in his life and hers.

We are also treated to the workings of Clare’s mind as she grapples with being alone in the big house with certain elements of the community bent on getting her to sell. This allows us to step easily into Clare’s shoes as we follow her about her day, gardening, shopping, problem solving, missing her daughter, making friendships, girding her loins against those trying to frighten her, asking herself difficult questions about her marriage and its lack of transparency in some areas.

Drama is heightened and the story advanced through the judicious use of conversation, giving the work an almost theatrical feel. At the same time descriptions of landscape and other settings are richly detailed and peppered with character’s sensory responses.

It is when Clare becomes involved in the protest movement against land development in the mountains that we begin to acutely feel the era. The author depicts the backroom strategising and often tedious work of preparing to fight city hall, whilst observing for us the sexism and racism of the times, the social inequalities, the rampant greed of the wealthy and the operations of the old boy and old money networks.

Alison Booth demonstrates her deep insights into the feel of the seventies, not merely its external trappings and historical record.

Bellevue is a clever blend of the personal and the societal-historical, but it is the people of this book who hold our attention so firmly and the beautiful writing of this author that makes it such reading pleasure.

Thank you to Red Door for my review copy and to Alison for speaking with me about this work, the times in which it is set and the important aspects of her fiction writing.