Book review: Bohemian Negligence, Bertie Blackman

A gentle reflection on an unconventional childhood from the daughter of a great Australian artist.

Beatrice Octavia (Bertie) Blackman is an ARIA-winning musician, an artist, and a multidisciplinary storyteller. She’s also the daughter of the renowned Australian artist Charles Blackman, who died in 2018 having survived a near-death experience some twenty years earlier. He was awarded an OBE in 1977 and was one of the artists credited with articulating a truly Australian visual language in the post-war period.

This beautiful, touching, and lyrical memoir is Bertie Blackman’s considered reflection on an unconventional childhood. Charles Blackman looms large in these pages, both as a father and as a symbol of a time and place – a hedonistic artistic milieu where the usual rules of suburban family life don’t apply. Bertie was one of Charles Blackman’s six children, born to three different mothers. 

That Blackman himself had a chaotic and dysfunctional childhood is clearly part of the story – most of us do ultimately learn about parenting, for better or worse, from our own parents. He grew up as one of four children in a single parent household at a time when that was uncommon. That his mother was a compulsive gambler, and the children were often in care, inevitably coloured his childhood. 

For the young Bertie Blackman, life was filled with wonder and adventure, but there was also fear and trauma, mysteries and uncertainty. There were the privileges of a wealthy inner-Sydney upbringing; there was also her father’s descent into alcoholism and her repeated abuse by a trusted family friend.  

Bertie Blackman is an accomplished wordsmith, vividly recreating each moment in time with a delicate and restrained voice. This is not a writer raging against the world; it is one who is striving to make sense of what has gone before, and find a positive way forward.  

Bohemian Negligence is not a linear narrative but a series of carefully-curated memories, each told with gentleness and clarity. And while she has much to be angry about, the overwhelming tone is one of understanding and acceptance. This is not a woman to be defined by her childhood traumas or the many years of therapy. She is alive on every page, speaking her truth, and allowing the reader to find the space between the words.

Many of the chapters are prefaced with small black line sketches, each one with its own unique character. There is a story-book quality to these images of rabbits and cats, people and places, and echoes of her father’s inimitable style.

It is touching that she thanks her mother, the artist Genevieve de Couvreur, and acknowledges her mother’s pain in these recollections. ‘It is because of you that I found the strength to find these words and speak my truth.’

 A year after her father died, Bertie Blackman conceived her son Rumi. Her memoir closes with these words: ‘There’s a sparkle of Dad in my little boy, and he fills my heart with a new love – perhaps the greatest love of all.’

Read: Book review: A Year with Wendy Whiteley, Ashleigh Wilson

And so despite the pain and suffering, this is overwhelmingly a life-affirming meditation on family and forgiveness, and deciding what will define your place in the world.

Bohemian Negligence, Bertie Blackman
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272pp
Publication date: 18 October 2022
RRP: $29.99

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.